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Germany

German Police Limbo Over Shooting-to-Kill

British police's shoot-to-kill policy led on Friday to the death of an innocent Brazilian. Scotland Yard expressed regret but justified the policy. German laws are much more nebulous.

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Could it happen in Germany?


The police officer who killed 27-year-old Jean Charles de Menezes received full support from Scotland Yard. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair called the shooting tragic, but the national shoot-to-kill policy necessary.

When the issue of a shoot-to-kill policy comes up in Germany, most police officers find themselves in legal limbo. Until terrorism became a viable, ubiquitous threat, it had only arisen in cases of hostage takings.

Terroranschlag auf israelische Sportler im Olympischen Dorf in München

A member of the Arab Commando group which seized members of the Israeli Olympic Team at their quarters at the Munich Olympic Village September 5, 1972 appears with a hood over his face on the balcony of the village building where the commandos held several members of the Israeli team hostage

Bavaria became the first German state to allow the practice, which it authorized the year after terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Currently 12 of Germany's 16 states permit police officers to kill suspects in order to save the lives of innocent people but only as a last resort.

Responsibility rests alone on the officer

But lawmakers in some states have been wary about creating legislation that puts a top-ranking police commissioner in position to hand down a potential death sentence. As a result, several states, including Berlin, allow police officers themselves to decide which action to take; their superiors may not order them to kill a suspected terrorist or hostage-taker.

The policy is not without its critics. Police union representatives say that the measure might not pass legal muster, even in dangerous situations.

"I have my doubts if a shoot-to-kill policy, a preventative shooting, is legal in Germany," Bernhard Witthaut, deputy chief the German police union GdP, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Others say a shoot-to-kill policy is necessary not just in hostage-taking situations, but beyond.

"If a hostage's life can be saved by a deadly shot, why can't those of numerous passengers in an underground train?" Wilfried Albishausen, deputy head of the German Association of Detectives told the Süddeutsche.

Scarce resources a more pressing issue

But at the moment, the debate in Germany is focusing more on police capabilities and resources. Interior Minister Otto Schily re-opened a federal vs. state debate on expanding the capabilities of the country's Federal Crime Office.

Konrad Freiberg, the head of the GdP, said measures recommended by top politicians are misguided. Many police departments are missing the necessary personnel to keep watch over the estimated 300 radical Muslims in Germany.

Freiberg told the Neue Osanbrücker Zeitung that the fact was just one of several "irresponsible shortfalls" in Germany's anti-terror fight and accused politicians of having a "talk show mentality."

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