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Germany

Police overworked and increasingly at risk, says new union chief

A day after being elected as the new head of the German police workers' union, Bernhard Witthaut said German police are spread too thin, overworked and increasingly at risk.

Police patrol in Berlin

Police are often spread too thinly in Germany

Bernhard Witthaut, the newly-elected head of Germany's police workers union, had not even been in office for a full day before drawing attention to the overworked state of Germany's police force.

On Monday, Witthaut was elected by his colleagues at a national meeting of the police union to lead the organization, and Tuesday morning, Witthaut gave an interview with German public radio outlining some of the problems facing German police.

"In light of recent terror warnings and also situations where a large contingent of police has been necessary, we have reached the limits of our capacities," Witthaut said.

Bernhard Witthaut

Witthaut says police have reached their limits

In recent weeks, security scares related to failed parcel bombs and media reports outlining a "bloodbath" massacre at the German parliament building has led the Interior Ministry to increase the presence of security forces at large gatherings and public transportation hubs.

Last legs

Large-scale demonstrations have also required additional a heightened security presence. The recent transport of nuclear waste to the Gorleben storage facility in northern Germany came with a price tag of around 50 million euros for security needed to clear protestors out of the way of the transport containers.

In September, demonstrations against a planned train station renovation project in Stuttgart made headlines when police and protestors clashed violently.

Meanwhile, cuts to police forces and hiring freezes in many states have led to police resources being spread too thin, said Witthaut.

"They're really on their last legs," he said of Germany's police officers.

Political scapegoats

Christian Pfeiffer, director of the Criminology Research Institute of Lower Saxony, says the current political situation in Germany isn't making things any easier for police officers.

Police fire water cannons at protestors

Police action in Stuttgart has been widely criticized

"It's a new problem that the police have to iron out difficulties when political decisions are made without adequate justification or explanation," Pfeiffer told Deutsche Welle. "The police are turned into scapegoats when politicians make mistakes with the transparency of their decisions."

Terror warnings issued by the Interior Ministry, such as the one last week calling on German citizens to remain alert but not to panic, are sometimes vague. The glass cupola of the German parliament building was recently closed to visitors after media reports of a planned terror attack there, but the government insisted it was all precautionary and would not confirm or deny the media reports.

"Even here, there is no transparency," said Pfeiffer. "It's not clear if this is really necessary or if this is just a demonstration by the internal security politicians to show they have everything under control."

Risk of violence

Adding to the stress in a police officer's life is the growing trend of violence against police.

A protestor blocks a street on the way to Gorleben

Many police were needed to clear the way to Gorleben

This has been a subject of debate in German media and the police workers union for some time, but a 2010 study authored by Pfeiffer at the Criminal Research Institute has supported these speculations with concrete facts.

The study surveyed over 20,000 police officers in ten German states about violence they encountered on the job in the last five years. Pfeiffer said instances where an officer had to be taken off the job for at least seven days because of injuries sustained due to violence on the job had grown by 60 percent.

"Someone who is stressed is less likely to react appropriately in a conflict situation than they normally would," said Pfeiffer. "The risk - also due to being overworked - of sustaining a serious injury increases for that reason."

Use of Bundeswehr troops

One solution floated by Klaus Jansen, head of the Association of German Criminologists, is to use Bundeswehr soldiers in a supporting role with police.

"We have to assume, that the exceptional use of additional police because of the current threat of terrorism will continue well into next year," Jansen said in an interview with the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper.

Using Bundeswehr troops to support normal police presents a legal question - it would require an amendment to the German constitution - but Christian Pfeiffer thinks there is a better solution.

He says if criminality - not a lack of resources or overburdened police officers - was addressed at a political level and could be reduced, then the current level of police officers in Germany would be adequate for them to properly do their job.

Pfeiffer thinks Bundeswehr troops should - as they have in the past - only be used to support police in emergency situations such as floods.

Author: Matt Zuvela
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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