The New York Police Department is planning to put its officers through a new police tolerance training center being launched in Manhattan next year by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Jewish Week has learned.
Police Commissioner Howard Safir has held several discussions with Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier about using its Tools for Tolerance program to sensitize the nation’s largest police force, which has been rocked by a series of tragic incidents involving ethnic minorities.
"Yes, we are talking with them and we are working together," NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Marilyn Mode confirmed Tuesday."
The police commissioner intends to observe one of their training sessions in the very near future with the expectations of extending it to the NYPD.
"The revelation comes as the Wiesenthal Center announced this week it is bringing its 5-year-old police sensitivity training course, developed in the wake of the Rodney King incident, to New York City with the help of state funds.
It’s the first time the center, which has branch offices in New York, Miami, Toronto, Jerusalem, Paris and Buenos Aires and produces Oscar-winning documentaries, has tried to duplicate its police tolerance training program in another state.
The program is designed to sensitize police, law enforcement, social workers and educators about ethnic and religious differences, using the Holocaust as a teaching tool.
A Wiesenthal official insisted the timing of the launch of the New York center is unrelated to recent police incidents in New York, including the March 16 fatal shooting of Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old black security guard who was shot by an undercover cop during a buy-and-bust drug operation in Midtown Manhattan.
"It’s coincidental," said Rhonda Barad, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s New York office. "I believe every city could use it."
She said the center, to be called Tools for Tolerance Education Center, New York, is being launched now because she finally was able to secure appropriate rental space after a two-year search.
Barad said the center will be housed in 10,000 square feet on the concierge floor of the old Daily News building on East 42nd Street and Second Avenue. Following remodeling, the center is expected to open in January 2001. Barad confirmed she has also talked with Safir. Mode said the NYPD has on occasion used other outside institutions for sensitivity training for selected executives. But she said a relationship with the Wiesenthal Center would mean putting a majority of the nation’s largest police force through the one- or two-day course. "This would be a new dimension," she said.
Barad said the cost is about $225 per individual per day.
The tolerance course was developed in Los Angeles by the center following the infamous King incident, in which white policemen were videotaped beating a black motorist impaired by liquor and drugs who was speeding to evade police.
Asked when Safir would fly to Los Angeles to observe the center’s training, Mode said "very, very soon."
The new center already has a commitment from Westchester County to train members of 44 separate police departments (about 3,000 officers) when the program begins in January.
Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano recently observed the Los Angeles tolerance-training program before consenting to a request to join the Wiesenthal Center’s national board of directors.
Wiesenthal Center officials received government help starting its New York center last year when Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver quietly budgeted $500,000 into the notoriously late $73 billion state fiscal plan as it was being finalized in Albany political backrooms last August.
The Wiesenthal Center already has raised $3.3 million in private funds to support the estimated $5 million program. Financiers Nelson Pelz and Peter May, top officials at Triarc Companies Inc., are the lead donors, contributing $1 million, Barad said.
"The initial catalytic gift for construction of the new facility is being provided by Sheldon Silver," she noted.
It’s not the first time the Wiesenthal Center is the beneficiary of government funds. The U.S. Justice Department last year awarded $2 million to the center to develop a special sensitivity program for non-police, law enforcement officers such as district attorneys, judges and parole officers. And California has poured millions of state funds into the Tools for Tolerance program. According to a center fact sheet, "over 28,000 law enforcement professionals, representing 170 police agencies and sheriff’s departments" across the state have participated.
In total, the program has received over $15 million from the State of California and $3 million on federal grants, according to a center official who says that 40,000 law enforcement professionals and 20,000 educators have gone through the program since it began in 1995.
But Barad said there will be key differences between the Los Angeles and New York programs.
Perhaps most significant is that the New York program will not be able to rely on the vast resources of Wiesenthal Center’s $55 million Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which offers Holocaust exhibits and high-tech interactive programs on genocide and racism as learning tools.
In 1998 the center purchased a $6.6 million facility across the street from the museum to house the Tools for Tolerance program. The California Arts Council, a state agency, provided $2.5 million toward the building’s purchase.
"We are not building a museum here," Barad said.Neither will the New York tolerance center have any affiliation with the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, which also receives millions of dollars in state and city funds.
"We are independent," she said.
Instead, the new training center will try to adapt some of the museum resources from L.A. for video and computers. It will also design courses specifically for New York.
"Once the center is up and running, participants will take diversity training seminars on issues such as hate, the immigrant experience in New York, anti-Semitism, racism and civil rights."
Barad said the long-range plan is to offer training to law enforcement agencies throughout the tristate area.
She said there is no conflict of separation of church and state over the public monies because the center is organized as a nonreligious, nonprofit organization. She plans to hire a director to run the program and about 40 full-time and part-time facilitators.
Barad said Rabbi Hier approached Silver with the idea of getting state funds in the spring of 1998. Silver inspected the program in Los Angeles several months later. Silver and Hier both attended Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph in the 1950s.
A Silver spokesman confirmed that the $500,000 grant was not announced publicly until this week. She could not say how much money would be budgeted in this year’s state budget, which for 16 years consecutively has failed to meet its deadline.