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Germany

One-Click Justice Comes to Germany

A new Internet system being introduced in Germany will allow members of the public to make complaints to the police about illegal incidents from the comfort of their own homes.

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"Stolen: one sleigh, nine reindeer, one with a red nose, big bag of presents"

Anyone who has been the victim of a traffic accident, verbal or physical abuse will know that such stressful and upsetting events are often made worse by the paperwork that has to be filled out afterwards. That is, if you want the matter to be resolved through legal channels.

A traumatic visit to the police station may be followed by endlessly looking through pictures, giving statements, answering repetitive questions and making possibly humiliating court appearances. But all this could be a thing of the past thanks to the latest in Germany's e-government reform.

After a successful test phase in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), members of the public will soon be able to make official statements on everything from barking dogs to reckless drivers by accessing a specially prepared Internet site.

Announced by NRW Interior Minister Fritz Behrens at the CeBIT technology fair in Hanover on Monday, the "click and complain" service is the embodiment of the federal government's electronic push into the new century, albeit a few years behind a lot of other countries.

Site offers forms on various crimes

Harnessing the spirit of e-government, the service intends to simplify and accelerate the process between citizen and state when it comes to reporting offenses through the easy-to-complete pre-formulated questionnaires on the homepage.

Alex Grinling Internet in Afghanistan

Once logged on, a citizen seeking to bring wrong-doers to justice can scan through the prepared forms on the list. Offenses listed at the launch of the service include: "Theft and Deception"; "Physical Injury and Insult," "Criminal Offenses in Traffic," "Criminal Offenses in Connection with the Internet" and the catch-all "Other Criminal Offenses and Incidents." There really is something for everyone.

A click on the offense of choice and one arrives at a friendly web questionnaire which can be filled in and sent out in no time at all. To report a "Criminal Offense in Traffic," the socially-minded citizen would fill in his or her name and address, tell when and where the incident took place, describe the culprit's vehicle and then describe the alleged perpetrator and detail the alleged perpetrator's crime.

Reports are legally binding

The process is simple enough for a passenger to complete by laptop and mobile phone while riding away from the scene of the crime. The information, which is treated as legally effective once submitted, is then handled by the authorities. The developers of the new service have yet to find a way of saving the police even more man hours by arresting and convicting the perpetrator without the need of officers.

"This procedure is not only very comfortable and quick for the citizens. The police also get to know about a lot more criminal offenses," said Behrens in Hanover. Surveys that took place alongside the trial showed that every third incident would not have been reported to the police without the help of the Internet.

However, the police themselves are not as enamored with the idea as the politicians seem to be. While police officers numbers continue to be cut, those who remain have had to work longer hours. A shortfall in new recruits has caused the police in NRW to complain that the force lacked almost 5,000 officers in 2003. This year, only 500 new recruits will join the force, although 1,000 had been expected.

Online access open to abuse

With police numbers falling, the idea of online complaints and paperwork completed by members of the public should free up cops who still have jobs to do what they're paid to do -- catch criminals. But Rainer Wendt, chairman of the police trade union DPoIG in NRW, is skeptical. "Online reports do not necessarily mean less work for the police. Once the report is sent, the cozy world of online reports ends. The case must still be taken on and investigated," he said in an interview with the Der Spiegel newsmagazine.

Wendt actually sees the service resulting in more wasted time. "(In NRW), more than 80 percent of the reports end up in the waste-paper basket." With people finding it easier to report crime without the stigma of visiting a police station, Wendt believes that number could rise dramatically and that the service is just another government fad. "The government lurches from one modernization project to the other," he lamented.

Fahndung mit SMS

The Internet service follows hot on the heels of an SMS phone initiative that has members of the public sending phone messages to police whenever they see a crime or criminal.

Herbert Planke, GdP police trade chairman, agrees. On the one hand, he accepts that the police's main task is to ensure people's security and he welcomes new ways to do so. But on the other hand, he sees that the system could be open to abuse. Planke has a simple solution: "Why doesn't the government just increase the number of police staff?"

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