CENTURY CITY, CALIF.
Wearing buzz haircuts and two-piece suits, the cadets from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy wind their way single-file down a darkened corridor. Epithets come fast and furious from the shadows: "Redneck ..." "Arrogant Jap ..." "Whatcha goin' to do about it, Jew boy?"
The cadets have come to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance to learn how to promote tolerance on the streets. This so-called "Whisper Tunnel" is just one of dozens of participatory exhibits designed to jar visitors into new awareness of bigotry and racism within themselves and their communities.
"Being put in the place of minorities who get called this stuff every day can be emotionally numbing," says recruit Corey King. "It helps me grasp the insidiousness of name-calling."
As part of a new program by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, recruits are being sent here to develop a fuller understanding of the origins of racism and hate. While few expect a single day of sensitivity training will dramatically change the attitudes of some police, it could cause officers to more carefully consider their treatment of suspects.
The $50 million facility is a state-of-the art, interactive, multimedia and computer facility that chronicles the Nazi Holocaust as the ultimate example of man's inhumanity to man.
More than just recounting the horrors of murder in concentration camps, the museum retells the lesser-known conditions of Germany in the 1920s that led to the rise of the Nazis and official efforts to annihilate 11 million European Jews. Participants are challenged to draw parallels between those conditions and current headlines from around the world as well as in their local communities.
"As the history of World War II through Bosnia shows, intolerance has not gone away," says Sgt. Dave Anderson, a commissioner for Peace Officer Standards and Training. "This museum shows more deeply than anywhere the extremes of behavior that can follow when people abuse others even in a small way."
Although state law has long mandated cultural-awarness training, police officials in this community of 90-plus ethnic groups realized that an added dose could help in diffusing unrest that has been simmering here since the Rodney King beating made national headlines in 1991.