One of two articles by the Houston police officers union James Coates held to discuss the groundbreaking program he designed in conjunction with Houston’s Jewish community at the Holocaust Museum.
Badge & Gun: April 2003
HPD is working with the Jewish and Muslim communities to educate a growing number of officers about hate crime causes and methods of prevention
BY TOM KENNEDY
Susan Llanes-Myers put into words what every police officer must have figured out a long time ago.
“Police officers,” she said, “are the first responders to hate crimes.”
Llanes-Myers, the daughter of a Texas Ranger, deals with hate education every workday. She is executive director of the Holocaust Museum Houston, where exhibits and educational programs are dedicated to teaching each visitor how hate can intensify and destroy millions of human beings.
The Houston Police Department has been taking a very productive advantage of the Museum’s educational program and continues to use the police-friendly facility to teach officers more and more about hate and hate crimes.
Several years ago, the Houston Police Academy’s Bill Hoffman saw the need to develop a partnership with the Holocaust Museum to teach Houston police officers more about hate. He figured, correctly, that officers were open to an off-site location for such an educational opportunity.
The Subject of Hate
Llanes-Myers worked with him and the HPD to set up an eight-hour course entitled Hate Crimes and Hate Groups – a Holocaust Perspective. Now the once-a-month elective usually draws a capacity crowd (60 persons).
Llanes-Myers is the lead teacher and includes a student session with a Holocaust survivor and concludes with a Museum tour.
“Our mission is to use the Holocaust Museum as a backdrop to hate in society,” the former public school teacher explained. She describes the course as “a marriage of past historical events and current events that uses the Holocaust to branch out to the hate groups of today.”
Adolph Hitler strongly pounded home hate on European soil 60-something years ago. Today, Llanes-Myers contends hate goes a long way and will intensify if more people are not educated on the subject.
Her course, for example, produces facts showing that there are at least 3,000 hate sites on the Internet.
Hate also is an educational subject that has drawn the intense interest of HPD Officer Steve Smith, assigned to the human relations unit at the Houston Police Academy since 1993.
Smith, a primary believer, supporter and encourager in the HPD/Holocaust Museum courses, said the course inspired him to envision a similar concept. Instead of just focusing on educating officers about the Jewish targets of hate over the centuries, Smith successfully sought to set up a course featuring the Muslim community.
Muslims everywhere have been targets of hate ever since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Although Osama Bin Laden’s ruthless band of 5,000 Al-Qaeda followers in no way represent the Muslim faith, sincere believers bore the brunt of often violent and hateful reactions.
“In November of last year,” Smith recalled, “it came to mind that maybe we need to do some training with the Muslim community.”
Smith’s Productive Efforts
He contacted the Islamic Circle of North America, a local group, and the Islamic Da’wah and soon got strong support from none other than Houston basketball legend Akeem Olajuwon. The Da’wah is located in an historic bank building in the 200 block of Main Street and receives strong financial backing from Akeem.
“Officer Roman Chavez, who works at the academy, told me about Akeem,” Smith said. “I visited with Akeem and asked if he would be interested. He said it would be a great thing to do. He wants to do more education about the Muslim community.
“It took the efforts of both Akeem and the HPD to develop this training.”
Smith also had the support and dedication of Llanes-Myers and the Holocaust Museum, as well as local Muslim spokesman Jim Coates.
Coates is a former Baptist Christian married to a woman who has been a Muslim since birth. He reverted to Islam when he met Fatimah Bhutan in his hometown of Chicago and the couple moved to Houston, which had been Fatimah’s home in past years.
Coates became a spokesman for the local Muslim community several months after 9/11 when hate crimes against Muslims were rampant because what American society didn’t know was unjustly hurting a religion.
He said Houston’s Muslim leaders decided to launch an unprecedented education campaign. Part of the ensuing process included a billboard on the North Freeway advertising a telephone number to call for information about Islam.
Smith saw the billboard, called the number and got to know Coates. After meeting with Coates and Llanes-Myers to develop the course, Smith followed their advice.
“We had the Muslim and Jewish communities kind of assisting each other in the development of this training, both having the same concerns about hate crimes or hate in the community,” Smith explained, “and you’ve got HPD in the middle facilitating, trying to bring these two communities together.”
A Success Story
It worked. Today’s story is a success, with HPD developing stronger ties to both communities as well as an improved understanding of the hate crimes that affect them.
Llanes-Myers said, “When HPD realized there was a problem, they turned to us to see how they could do it.”
She and the Museum were gracious about providing start-up help. She monitored the first class in January, led by Coates at Akeem’s Da’wah.
Coates, a truck driver for a Houston Chronicle contractor, quickly tried to clarify basic myths. Muslims, for instance, don’t meet in “mosques,” but rather in masjids.
By far his highest priority was – and still is – to stress that Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda followers do not represent the Muslim faith at all but use Muslims to further their terrorist goals.
As far as the course, Coates said, “We didn’t want to be teaching religion. We geared it to teaching law enforcement officers how to react to Muslims and understanding their culture, which is directly linked to their religion.
“Steve helped refine it and our pilot took place in January.”
Smith said the course teaches many basic lessons and could provide many suggestions of ways to better deal with the cultural ramifications.
Muslims are required to pray at least specified five times every day. They are not always the exact time each and every day.
There have been reports of Muslims acting suspiciously, such as kneeling on small carpets in a parking lot near a vehicle – a situation that seems suspicious. They are not planning to bomb a building; they are praying.
“HPD must work to have a stronger relationship with the Muslim community,” Smith said. “If Dispatch knows the prayer times, they (dispatchers) will know and the officers will know (the reason for kneeling on carpets in parking lots) and have a better understanding.
“As we have classes we’re learning more things that might be of use,” he said.
Coates sees the course as one very effective method to prevent hateful acts against an often-misunderstood religion. He is optimistic about Houston overall, calling it “different.”
“Muslim communities around the country have undergone great harassment,” he explained. “But here we have had a lot of good support from communities, particularly the Jewish community, and we haven’t had that many hate crimes.
“It is very important to get this course up and running at this time in order to help solve the problem of terrorism. Our relationship with law enforcement will be better and I think that’s very important to both sides.
“If you decided to isolate the Muslims, you will always have a problem trying to police that community. You will always be looked upon as an outsider.”
But for police officers to reach out to them and learn about them in places like the Da’wah is a step in the opposite direction – a positive direction, not a hateful one.