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German police face probe over 11-year-old in handcuffs

February 12, 2021

Police took an 11-year-old boy from a Sinti family to the station in handcuffs, reportedly without informing his parents. Prosecutors are now investigating after the family filed a complaint.

Symbolbild Polizei
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand

Tiziano L. lives with his family in the town of Singen in southwestern Germany near the Swiss border. On Saturday afternoon, the 11-year-old was playing with other children while his mother was nearby, visiting his grandmother. That's how the Association for German Sinti and Roma in the state of Baden-Württemberg describe the events. Then, two police officers came up to the children, asked for their names, and then left again for a time. Thereafter, two different officers approached and took Tiziano back to the station, in handcuffs.

By Tuesday, the family had pressed charges against the police officers.

The Interior Ministry of Baden-Württemberg told DW: "What can be confirmed is that on February 6, an event took place in Singen in which a boy with hand restraints placed on him had to be brought to the police station."

Previously on Wednesday, the local police had denied knowledge of the events. The Interior Ministry then followed up, saying that its new understanding was that "the escorting of the child by police" had been successful, so there was "no restraining" involved. By Thursday, police conceded to having brought the boy in, prompting another clarification from the state interior ministry: yes, the boy had indeed been in handcuffs.

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'What's rotten in the Singen police precinct?'

"If a ministry requires two days to ascertain whether or not handcuffs were placed on a child, you do then ask yourself: What's rotten in the Singen police precinct?" the family's lawyer, Mehmet Daimagüler, told DW.

He says that Tiziano related how one of the officers, after asking his name, said that he belonged to the "gypsies," and that people "know them."

"Racism and discrimination have no place in the state police of Baden-Württemberg, as a result we appropriately pursue every single suspected instance," the Interior Ministry said, adding they were striving for a "comprehensive investigation of events."

Did the police not allow the child to contact his mother, as he claims? Police and the ministry are yet to answer this question and others, pointing to ongoing inquiries. Finding out exactly what transpired on Saturday in Singen will be the task of an arm of the state police called the Kriminalpolizeidirektion, based in Rottweil. They have specialists in investigating police officers. The body received the task two days after Tiziano's family filed their complaint. Police spokesman Uwe Vincon told DW that the accused officers intended to testify in the investigations.

'Mulo' to collect him from the 'police bunker'

The state chapter of the Association for German Sinti and Roma, which lobbies for the rights of the ethnic group in Germany, made the family's case public. The family asked for their help over the weekend, the group's chairman Daniel Strauss explains.

"If you'd told me that something like this was possible in Germany, I'd have said: no way," Strauss tells DW.

Daniel Strauss.
Daniel Strauss runs the Baden-Württemberg branch of the Association for German Sinti and RomaImage: Andrea Grunau/DW

The boy had his hands fastened behind his back and was placed in the police car with pressure and physical force, Strauss says. He adds that Tiziano seemed a little younger than 11, not older; he was intimidated and could barely speak. Strauss says he discussed what happened at length with Tiziano and the other children and his family via video chats. His organization also considers itself a provider of advice for victims of mistreatment and discrimination.

Tiziano was still suffering complications from broken ribs in a road traffic accident last year and has asthma. According to Strauss, when he complained about this to the officers and asked to call his mother, he was told "shut your face."

One of the officers then allegedly spoke to him in broken Romani, threatening that the boy would have to spend the night in the "police bunker." There, "Mulo" [the spirit of the dead in Romani tradition — editor's note] would come and get him. Strauss said this was another clear example of his treatment and his ethnic background being linked.

When Tiziano's mother called the police station looking for her son, she says she was told that he was not there. On her next call she was asked how many times she needed to be told, before the line went dead. She told them that when under stress he might need his asthma inhaler, but they just put the phone down on her.

The 11-year-old told his family that "a commissioner" — perhaps a reference simply to a more senior plainclothes officer — had said that his handcuffs should be removed.

Family lawyer Daimagüler says: "That suggests that there was an officer there in the precinct who saw that there was a problem and responded correctly."

After roughly half an hour, with dusk approaching, Tiziano was released and sent home. His lawyer says that on his way back, he crossed the same main road where a car hit him last year.

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'Alarm bells' if children detained without parental notification

Are police allowed to take kids in for questioning without alerting their parents? The local prosecutor's office in Konstanz said that it could not offer an overarching answer to that question. It would depend on questions of necessity, proportionality, and whether it was done for the safety of the child or of others.

But for lawyer Daimagüler: "Taking a child to the station in handcuffs — all the alarm bells should be ringing there. The first thing to do is call their parents."

Even while police were talking to Tiziano and his friends, his parents say they were trying to reach him on the phone, eight times in all. The police are accused of not letting the children answer.

"Why were the parents not allowed to know that police were interrogating their children," Daimagüller asks, saying it's the sort of "awful" case he expects to hear about involving police in a US state, but not in Germany.

In this this Jan. 29. 2021 still frame from a Rochester, N.Y. Police Department body-camera video, a nine-year-old girl is handcuffed in police custody in a police cruiser after police used pepper spray on her as she screamed for her father.
A recent case involving a girl in Rochester, New York, being handcuffed and pepper sprayed prompted international attentionImage: Rochester Police Department/AP/picture alliance

Second case from same town in a year

Tiziano's family are members of the recognized German minority of the Sinti, one of the Romani peoples. They have a history stretching back at least six centuries in what is now Germany, and faced persecution, expulsion and extermination during the Nazi regime. Daniel Strauss, of the organization representing the ethnic group, says Tiziano's ancestors also faced such persecution. The history of this persecution in Singen was recently explored by a committee, with the local community willing to investigate the history. Discrimination against Romani peoples remains rife in much of Europe today.

"This is the third case of police violence in Baden-Württemberg against Sinti and Roma to land on my desk in nine months," lawyer Daimagüler said. Another case in Singen plus one not far from Freiburg involved sometimes serious physical injuries, he said. Daniel Strauss said that since Tiziano's family came forward, he had received reports from more Sinti families of attacks by individual police officers.

Strauss also wrote to the state interior minister in Stuttgart demanding an investigation. Baden-Württemberg agreed in 2013 to a compact between the state government and Sinti and Roma minorities designed to protect their rights. Representatives of the two sides meet regularly. "In no other German state is there a further-reaching set of protections for Sinti and Roma minorities," Strauss says.

That said, he adds an important caveat: "We have never yet experienced that a police officer was legally called to account for potential misbehavior." Strauss suspects however that this could be set to change. "Nothing justifies the alleged behavior of these officers. It's in breach of the UN's Convention of the Rights of the Child, of EU law, and of German law."

Daimagüler also brought up international legal obligations when filing charges on the family's behalf. He notes that conviction rates in suspected police violence cases are as low as 1%, with experience pointing to it being difficult for litigants to adequately prove their cases. But this case in Singen took place close to a pair of high-rise apartment blocks, meaning the lawyer is hopeful of finding other eyewitnesses.

The family's public statement was put out via the Association for German Sinti and Roma: "This was a police attack on a child, on an 11-year-old Sinto! We as a family and psychologically affected. The handcuffs left marks on my son's hands. We will stand up and raise our voice."

This article was translated from German.

Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author