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Two police patrolling a railway station Photo: Jens Schlueter/dapd
Image: dapd

Skin control

Rachel Gessat / mll
October 31, 2012

A court in Germany has told the police they may not carry out identity checks on people on the basis of their skin color. There's disagreement among the police as to whether they welcome the ruling.


Back in December 2010, a 25-year-old black German architecture student was sitting in a train from Kassel to Frankfurt when two policemen asked to see his ID. He felt that their request was discriminatory and refused. He told them that he felt their behavior was reminiscent of "Nazi methods." The police charged him with insulting behavior.

One of the policemen has admitted that it was because the man was black that he wanted to check his papers - he said it was quite usual. When he heard that, the student brought charges of discrimination against the police.

Different courts, different opinions

The first trial, at the administrative court in Koblenz, decided in March that the police behaved correctly. Police could use someone's appearance as a basis for spot checks, in order to catch illegal immigrants. Now an appeal court has overturned that ruling.

Police checking an African for drugs in Hamburg
Black people feel they are checked more frequently by policeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The judges at a higher administrative court in Koblenz ruled that skin color cannot be the decisive factor leading to an identity check. This was a clear violation of the ban on discrimination included in Article 3 of the German constitution, which states, "No person shall be favored or disfavored because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions."

Different police unions, different opinions

The police can't agree on how they see the judgment.

"The courts deal with the law in an esthetically pleasing way, but they don't make sure their judgments match practical requirements," said Rainer Wendt, chair of the German Police Union. The ruling will make the work of the police more difficult.

The other main union, the Union of German Police, doesn't agree. Their spokesman, Josef Scheuring, told DW that he finds Wendt's position annoying: "It doesn't represent the view of the majority of the police, and it creates an image which is not fair to the German police."

Of course, says Scheuring, they accept the court's ruling, and it won't at all get in the way of their work. Identity checks are only allowed if there's a justifiable reason for them, and there wasn't any such reason in the case of the student. Scheuring says unambiguously, "No one may be checked in Germany merely because of his skin color."

Human rights activists welcome the ruling

The human rights organization Amnesty International said it was relieved that the higher court had overturned the ruling. Its expert for police and human rights issues, Alexander Bosch, told DW, "We welcome the ruling as an important signal against discrimination in identity checks." He added that, over the last few years, there had been an increasing number of complaints by people with an immigrant background that they were exposed to discriminatory identity checks.

Tahir Della confirms that. He was born in Munich and is now on the executive of the Initiative of Black People in Germany - and he says, "The targeted checking of black people is not a new issue." Many black Germans had had experiences similar to those of the student. Even black people who spoke fluent German were assumed to be foreigners. There was an assumption that only white people could be real Germans.

Tahir Della welcomes the court's rulingImage: Tahir Della

"Black people are marginalized and not seen as a real part of society," says Della. This was no longer appropriate in Germany's current multicultural and multiethnic reality. His organization sees the judgment as "a big step in the right direction."

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