Local prosecutors and police convened at a West Ashley synagogue Feb. 13 for a discussion on the importance of measured and ethical prosecution as part of a course created by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that scrutinizes the German police’s role in enabling genocide.
The conversation, facilitated by law enforcement officials from Arizona and North Carolina, encouraged more than 100 members of the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office to refrain from blindly enforcing the law and to exercise judgment and ethics when making decisions.
The interactive training — “What You Do Matters: Lessons of the Holocaust” — has educated nearly 10,000 professional law enforcement members across 36 states since 2012, according to its website.
Designed by Arizona officials and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., it examines the role of policing in Nazi Germany, where police were charged with enforcing laws in the 1930s that gradually suspended civil liberties. By 1945, the Nazi government, ruled by Adolf Hitler, had engineered the systematic killing of approximately six million Jews.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, whose office spans Berkeley and Charleston counties, said she invited the program to the Lowcountry as part of her effort to promote discretion in prosecution to achieve fair outcomes.
“A lot of things that were done leading up to the Holocaust were done legally,” Wilson said. “It’s about using your discretion. It’s about being wise and thinking through what we’re doing so that we get a fair and just result.”
The three-hour training, which occurred at Synagogue Emanu-El, was sponsored by local philanthropist Anita Zucker, whose parents survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States after World War II.
Course instructor and Arizona prosecutor Elizabeth Ortiz described how German police gradually shifted “from being protectors of the people to enforcers of Nazi ideology.” She presented a slippery slope where police initially carried out routine tasks in conjunction with Nazi officers — foot patrol, crowd escorts, civil standby — but were later charged with shooting Jews to death.
Officers in Germany were enforcing legally passed laws, but in doing so, they enabled crimes against humanity. The course challenged participants to consider how they can resist blindly following the law.
Assistant Solicitor Denton Matthews said learning about police’s role in Nazi Germany reaffirmed to him that his actions as a prosecutor — even a seemingly small decision — can affect scores of people.
“You have a lot of power over somebody’s life,” Matthews said. “You’ve got to wield it with the right amount of respect.”
The training was part of a broader effort at the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office to understand prosecutors’ roles in fueling injustices, including racial disparities.
Wilson unveiled a rigorous data collection initiative in 2019 to identify and better understand racial bias in prosecution.
Data on tens of thousands of criminal cases was shared with researchers at the Justice Innovation Lab and Loyola University in Chicago. In a 2021 report, they found Black men are disproportionately accused of crimes in Charleston County, but are treated similarly to White men once they enter the court system.
To reduce racial disparities in arrests, Wilson said the office now screens arrest warrants for lower level offenses that are often dismissed for insufficient evidence.