REPORT

Bad cop
Police violence in Germany. By Lalon Sander

Photo by Max A/CC BY-SA.

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man in a blue T-shirt with a bicycle speaks to a police officer. Then, he walks away. Suddenly, he is pulled back by another policeman, hit in the face and finally thrown to the ground, then arrested. The policemen back away from a gathering crowd shouting, “We are peaceful, what are you!” The scene from the Freedom not Fear demonstration in Berlin, in September

2009, against the spreading of state surveillance was well documented. At least three techies filmed it, bloggers posted it on Youtube and a high-resolution version was made available for download from many video hosting websites. It subsequently became one of the most controversially discussed incidents of police violence in Germany. In a first statement, Berlin police

claimed that the thirty-seven-year-old man had been interfering with police work. However, none of that was evident in any of the videos of the incident. Not even in the police’s own tapes. In his own version of the story, the man in blue claimed it was about the arrest of a friend, and he was simply asking the officer to identify himself. “Even the police videos show that my client was not interfering

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with the police before his arrest,” said Johannes Eisenberg, his lawyer. The evidence became so damning that two police officers are currently being investigated for grievous bodily harm. “A deliberate punch for no reason by one of my officers is something I do not want to experience,” said Dieter Glietsch, Berlin police commissioner. Unfortunately, none of the evidence was recorded by any of the police cameramen at the demonstrations. Eisenberg later made the police videos of the incident public, showing that the police cameramen had turned their cameras away from their violent colleagues, thus ensuring that no video evidence of the incident was captured. The incident was the most recent case, in which police violence at a demonstration was documented. Activists had been claiming for years that German policemen used arbitrary and excessive violence at demonstrations; that people who brought charges against officers often had to face charges themselves; that officers protected each other before the courts; that the proceedings were slow and cases were often dropped because the accused officers could not be identified; and that in the rare cases, in which policemen were convicted, they received unreasonably lax sentences. In 2004, a study by Amnesty International, documenting cases of police violence, lent those claims credibility. The study presented cases in which the police had used arbitrary or excessive force against people, tortured them, and in some cases, had even caused their death. It noted that foreigners and people with insecure rights of residence were especially threatened. It demanded that an authority be set up to work on statistics about charges against the police force and an independent authority be installed to examine these charges. The study noted a number of cases in which policemen were convicted of using arbitrary or excessive force during demonstrations. In those rare cases, it was video evidence or evidence given by other policemen that led to the conviction. In 2002, policemen at a demonstration in Hamburg beat up two undercover policemen, who they assumed were regular demonstrators. Half a year later, they were sentenced to twelve months in prison on parole. “When officers commit crimes, the citizens are helpless,” the judge said in his ruling. He also noted that if

regular demonstrators had been attacked instead of policemen, the culprits would not even have been identified. Later, the sentences for the two policemen were revised to ten months on parole. The revision ensured that they would not be removed from service. In 2001, a policeman attacked a demonstrator in Berlin who was being arrested and hit him on the head even though he had been successfully detained by other officers. The accused officer later claimed that he only assisted his colleagues in arresting the man who allegedly wanted to throw rocks at them. A TV-crew filming a documentary recorded the incident. Their material later supported the victim’s version of the events, and ensured the conviction of the policeman. The policeman was sentenced to a fine of €4950. In 2000, two policemen hit a Japanese journalist who was looking for his cameraman even though he had identified himself. An amateur videographer had recorded the incident. Two years later, the policemen were sentenced to six and eighteen months in prison. They were released on parole and had to pay €2000 each to charitable organisations. Over the past ten years, there had been few cases besides those three, in which policemen were sentenced for arbitrary and excessive violence at demonstrations. Amnesty International had been calling for a personal identification tag in order to make it easier to identify on-duty police officers resorting to arbitrary or excessive force against demonstrators. After the incident with the man in blue, an Amnesty spokesperson reiterated that demand, saying that as a rule policemen walked free when charged. On the other hand, a 2008 study by the law department of Berlins Freie Universität showed that of 143 cases filed against police officers only twelve would have been solved if policemen had worn personal identification tags. The authors came to the conclusion that personal identification is unnecessary. However, the authors also sorted out over one hundred cases, in which the victims would have been unable to read the personal identification because they had been sprayed with pepper-spray. In ten further cases, they could not ascertain whether the identification would have helped in the investigations. In Berlin, for six years, police officers already had personal identification tags.

In 2000, two policemen hit a Japanese journalist who was looking for his cameraman even though he had identified himself. An amateur videographer had recorded the incident. Two years later, the policemen were sentenced to six and eighteen months in prison. They were released on parole and had to pay €2000 each to charitable organisations.
However, as wearing them was voluntary, only a few put them on. Over the past year, Berlin police commissioner, Dieter Glietsch, had been pressing to make it mandatory for on-duty officers, “We have to ask ourselves, what it means to be a police force close to the people. It is not understandable that the most visible representatives of state authority act as if they have to conceal their identity before the citizens.” With those words the commissioner addressed fears within the police force that criminals might use the identification to harass them while they were off-duty. Glietsch, however, remained mostly alone with his demands. On the other hand, citizens and activists began to take matters into their own hands. After the incidents at the Freedom not Fear demonstration, the Committee for Basic Rights and Democracy announced it would send observers to a demonstration in November 2009. “Some observers will have cameras,” the organisation stated. “Some will have video cameras.” �

Lalon Sander is a Berlin-based journalist with Die Tageszeitung. The police violence video mentioned in this report is available online: vimeo.com/6548644

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