A ‘systematic problem’: police violence often goes without consequences

Time and time again, cases pile up as police officers are accused of disproportionate use of force. However, convictions are rare. Experts attribute this to weak investigative powers. right?

A man died during a police search in Mannheim on Monday. A video intended to show the incident quickly spread on social networks and caused strong criticism of the actions of the emergency services. Because you can see how a police officer repeatedly hits the head of a man lying on the ground, his face is covered in blood shortly thereafter. The two officers involved were suspended from duty and are being investigated for causing bodily harm in office, resulting in death. According to the association, traces of a “low intensity” blunt force were found on the man’s body. It is said that the dead man suffered from heart failure.

Andreas Stinger, president of the South Carolina State Federation of Baden-Württemberg, emphasized that one should not be fooled by the individual video sequences. However, Mannheim Police Chief Siegfried Kollmar assumes the case will cost his authority a lot of trust. “It will need a few weeks and months before we regain confidence,” Colmar says. “Our efforts encountered a crack.”

In principle, the police have the support of the population. An NTV poll last December showed that about 80 percent of those surveyed trust police officers a great deal — and the number was only higher for doctors. However, there are always cases where emergency services are accused of excessive or disproportionate measures. As is currently the case in Mannheim, these discussions are made public mostly through videos circulating on the Internet.

About two weeks ago, statements by United Nations human rights expert Nils Melzer caused quite an uproar. He also referred to recordings of police operations during the Corona demonstrations when he testified to the “failure of the system” in Germany when dealing with police violence. Melzer’s harsh ruling was “Police watch does not work in Germany”. What is that?

‘Sometimes limits are crossed’

The police have a social monopoly on violence. Betting is allowed as a last resort and according to the principle of proportionality. “But at the same time you believe in the problem that the use of force does not always take place within the framework of legal authorities, but that these limits are sometimes exceeded,” explains Tobias Singelstein in an interview with ntv.de.

The problem is much bigger in other countries. But even in Germany, “it is no accident that officers go too far; it is about the way the police work,” explains a professor of criminal law at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. It concludes that “unlawful police violence is a structural problem”.

According to Singelenstein, major events such as political demonstrations or professional football matches play a particularly important role. “But we are of the view that unlawful police violence can happen in virtually all operational situations. Identity checks, home searches, arrests – all of the spectrum.”

If the use of force by police officers exceeds the level permitted by law, the offense of bodily harm in office is fulfilled. According to official statistics, about 4,000 police officers are investigated every year, and almost half of the cases relate to illegal violence by the police.

The study criticizes the high number of unreported cases

In 2019, a large-scale study by Ruhr-Uni Bochum, led by Singelnstein, examined 3,400 cases of alleged police violence in Germany. The result: the number of unreported cases is five times greater than the cases recorded annually in the statistics. This means that for every suspected case there are at least five unreported cases. “People get the impression that they don’t stand a chance in court,” Singelstein explains. “A lot of people think the evidence is so bad, you can’t recognize the officers at all, or they get the impression that you don’t stand a chance against the police anyway.”

In fact, the chances of success after advertising are slim. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the majority of actions against police officers were stopped, with only 57 criminal cases initiated in 4,200 investigations in 2019. 2020 looked similar. Convictions are much rarer. According to the findings of researchers at Ruhr-Uni Bochum, there were only seven in 2019.

A case that was also harshly criticized by UN expert Melzer. He asked the federal government for statistics on the number of police officers prosecuted for disproportionate violence. Answer: In two years it was only one, and in many federal states there are no statistics at all. While protesters are sometimes given summary sentences, proceedings against police officers are stopped or delayed “so that no one is looking anymore,” Melzer says.

When asked by ntv.de, the Federal President of the Police Union (GdP), Oliver Malshaw, replied that allegations against officials are often not substantiated. “Especially in the case of reports of disproportionate use of force by police officers, it is often found that the officer acted within what was permitted,” Malchow said.

Colleagues Investigate with Colleagues

For criminal attorney Sinlenstein, on the other hand, other reasons are crucial. There is strong cultural cohesion in the police force, which influences investigations. “People are investigating against colleagues.” The prosecutor’s office, who ultimately decides, has to work with what the police have to offer.

In addition, evidence in investigations against police officers is usually difficult. Videos as a snapshot are often of only limited importance, and anti-statements are often made in such proceedings. “This is a situation in which police officers rank relatively high in the hierarchy of judicial credibility. The judiciary then tends to regard police officers as impartial witnesses and therefore considers them to be particularly credible,” explains Singlenstein. Third point: The Public Prosecutor’s Office works closely with and even relies on the police. “I think the attorney general’s office often has a special understanding of police officers as suspects.”

The allegations are vigorously denied by the police. GdP Chairman Malchow assured ntv.de that the police are not above the law. Investigations against police officers will be handled “like any other case”. There are additional preventive measures within the police force, such as advanced training seminars and communication training. Moderators are also notified. “In concrete operations, the use of body cameras may also help identify misconduct or refute allegations,” Malshaw says.

Seinlenstein, on the other hand, finds the use of such cameras of little use. “In the United States, they only work, in Germany this does not work for data protection reasons.” Emergency services are responsible for determining when to turn on the camera — which is a dilemma. “It makes sense for police officers to turn the body camera on primarily in situations where it is beneficial for them and turn it off in situations that could harm them.”

Establishment of independent complaints bodies

Instead, the attorney and criminologist invite independent complaints bodies to which those affected can turn. Human rights organizations have been calling on Germany for this for years. In some federal states there are so-called ombudsmen and police officers who also deal with cases of unlawful police violence. Their primary task: to investigate allegations independently, for example by interviewing witnesses.

The powers differ depending on the federal state, in Berlin it will have to go further in the future. Rather, the bill corresponding to the planned body provides for direct access to the police, for example in the form of examination of files or access to police premises. Unlike other European countries such as Denmark or Great Britain, where such complaints offices have been a common practice for years, German bodies have relatively few resources, according to an analysis by the German Institute for Human Rights.

The GdP refuses to establish independent complaints offices. “The demand for such a position resonates with a fundamental distrust of the police and the judiciary,” Malchow says. “Of course we work with complaints offices that have already been set up or with police officers who have been deployed and share ideas.”

On the other hand, Singelenstein sees the possibility of creating a “structural equilibrium” in the introduction of independent complaints offices. “The problem will not be completely resolved. But of course something must be done to keep unlawful police violence as low as possible.”

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