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Racial profiling by German police?

Naomi Conrad/ cbJuly 2, 2013

Activists say police officers often pick dark-skinned people out of a white crowd for security checks. The federal police reject the accusations of racism. They say anyone could be checked.

Security police checks in Frankfurt airport. (Photo: Arne Dedert dpa/lhe)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Worn-out stairs lead to the second floor of an inconspicuous building in Berlin's hip Kreuzberg district. Colorful posters and stickers peel gradually off the gray concrete walls: one is a call to protest against asylum seekers' deportation, another a flier saying "Oury Jalloh was murdered," about an African asylum seeker who died in police custody. Biplab Basu is waiting at the heavy door of "ReachOut," a small organization that helps victims of rightwing extremism and racism.

Basu himself has often encountered racism, he recounts. A couple of months ago, he and his daughter were the only ones who were checked by police in a train approaching the Czech-German border. Basu is certain that the officers approached him and his daughter, because their skin was darker than that of their fellow travelers. That he came to Germany more than 30 years ago didn't matter. Basu has filed a complaint, and might even go to court over the fact that he and his daughter were picked out of a white crowd.

For years, he has fought against "racist police checks," as he calls them. He co-organized protests in the early 1990s and handed out fliers. He says that if only dark-skinned people are approached by police in trains or airports, fellow travelers will internalize the "dark skin equals criminal" idea.

'Structural Discrimination'

Hendrik Cremer from the German institute for Human Rights (Photo: book by Thilo Sarrazin)
Cremer: 'these checks violate German law'Image: Hendrik Cremer

But Basu fears that he's one of the few fighting this corner: "The majority of people who are checked because of the color of their skin aren't doing anything about it, because they feel insulted and humiliated. For many of them," he adds, "police checks are a part of life, and not easily contestable." Racial profiling is explicitly prohibited. But the allegedly racist checks are often conducted in trains or airports, where the German federal police is, according to article 22 of the Federal Police Law, allowed to check individuals to "prevent and eliminate unlawful entry."

Who is picked out for checks is determined by random sampling, without concrete suspicion, Hendrik Cemer from the German Institute for Human Rights explains. "Police are are supposed to act based initially on a visual inspection, so what ends up happening is they are making judgements based on an individuals hair color, eye color and skin color." Thus the system's structure is set up with implicit discrimination, according to Cremer. That's why he demands the abolition of this particular article within the law.

The legal expert has dealt with the topic in depth: he recently conducted a study on article 22 and attended many events over the last couple of months, "where police and critics sat face to face." Again and again Cremer experienced that police officers simply did not understand the accusations of racism. He wasn't surprised- after all, the officers are explicitly instructed by their superiors to conduct checks based on certain traits, Cremer says.

Police reject accusations

A security check by police at Hamburg Airport, the two police officers are asking a Sikh man for his documents. (Photo: Axel Heimken/dapd)
A police check at Hamburg Airport: random questioning or racial profiling?Image: dapd

The police strongly refuted these accusations when contacted by Deutsche Welle. Racial or ethnic profiling is not being practiced, the federal police said in a two-page statement: "Anyone can be the target of our measures." Random questioning and checks are conducted based on "border police knowledge," which includes significantly more than "only a person's ethnicity." Other factors that determine whether or not someone is checked are "information on traffic routes, possible locations, time periods, age group, gender and suspicious behavior," as well as clothing, luggage and "additional physical traits."

So are there internal training courses on the topic of racism or discrimination in security checks on indidviduals? Police point out the training and advanced education courses offered to officers, which sensitize them to the fact that "police measures can't be based on a person's nationality or ethnicity alone." In addition, the federal police themselves employ more than 800 officers with a range of ethnic backgrounds.

Charged for complaining about racism?

"That's just wishy washy," Biplab Basu says about the police's explanation attempts. "The color of one's skin is the first and most important criterion in these checks. Everything else comes second, period. These kinds of checks are racist." His cell phone rings: a young man tells Basu that he was charged with insulting an officer after he had complained about racial profiling during a security check. Time and again, young men, who are the main target, sit on Basu's leather couch and report the same things. The activist says that it's easy to get charged.

Omar proudly reports that he has been charged 23 times already. He taped all the reports to his mirror, so that he sees them every day. The Afghan was charged, because he protested that no other passengers on the train were checked and accused the officers of racism. Or because he violated his residency requirement: asylum seekers are not allowed to leave the administrative district in which they are registered. Omar shrugs. He's not allowed to be in Berlin, but thinks he won't be discovered: "Because my skin isn't that dark." Some of his friends, like asylum seekers from African states, have more difficulties, Omar says. He came to Germany four years ago and has been checked numerous times, "but not as often as those with black skin."

Basu admits that he isn't checked that often himself. Maybe because he always wears a suit, the activist says and touches his gray suit jacket. So maybe skin color isn't the single greatest factor in security checks after all? Basu considers this for a moment and then shakes his head. A woman he knows proves his theory: the renowned professor from India was on vacation in Germany with her daughters. Over a short time period on a train, they were checked various times, Basu says. "And that was definitely because of the color of their skin."