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Are you tall enough to join the police?

August 8, 2017

Judges in North Rhine-Westphalia have made it official: Short people can join the police too. The move highlights how contentious the height rules are that some German state police forces apply when hiring new officers.

Deutschland Hameln - Mann schleift Frau hinter Auto her
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Julian Stratenschulte

It's not easy being short. Aside from not reaching the highest shelf or having to hem your pants, being vertically challenged can also prevent you from getting your dream job. It looked like this was going to happen to Johanna Dillmann, a 22-year-old who had applied to become a police officer in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Police rejected her because she wasn't tall enough. The required height for female police officers in the state is 1.63 meters (just over five feet three inches). Dillmann is 1.615 meters tall - 1.5 centimeters too short.

But on Tuesday, a court in Dusseldorf decided that the young woman's application couldn't be thrown out merely because she was lacking a centimeter-and-a-half in height. 

In explaining their decision, the judges pointed to the German constitution, which states that the best applicants for a job may only be determined by looking at their abilities and qualifications in their field. Exceptions can only be made if parliament passes a law with additional criteria, explaining why said criteria are not an arbitrary form of discrimination.

Height requirements 'difficult to rationalize'

Erich Rettinghaus, head of the police union in NRW
Rettinghaus says 1 centimeter shouldn't make a good candidate failImage: DPolG/E. N. Fiegel

But there's no law stipulating the height requirement in North Rhine-Westphalia. It was set at 1.68 meters for men and 1.63 meters for women roughly 10 years ago, in cooperation with police training officials.

"It's difficult to rationalize this [height requirement]," Erich Rettinghaus, head of the police union in North Rhine-Westphalia, told DW. "Many people claim that if you're called into a potentially violent situation, it's more likely to quiet down quickly if a bunch of two-meter-tall officers show up. That might be true sometimes, but you can't generalize it like that."

Rettinghaus also pointed out that a highly qualified police officer didn't need to be tall to assert authority or arrest troublemakers.

"When you have to restrain a perp who's 2.2 meters, it's helpful when you're tall and strong - but that doesn't mean that someone with great abilities, skill and technique can't also get the job done," he said.

A patchwork of different rules

For exactly these reasons, numerous people in recent years have sued when their applications were rejected because of height. Just this February, a court in Aachen sided with a woman who had sued when she was told she was too short to be a police officer. And in 2016, a male applicant went to court in North Rhine-Westphalia after his application was thrown out because he was only 1.66 meters. He won, with the state announcing they would repeal the case, but there's no new court date yet.

If North Rhine-Westphalia's police force rejects him, he could apply in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate. There, male and female applicants only have to be 1.62 meters to be considered. In Germany, police affairs fall under the states' authority. That's why there are a host of different height requirements across the country.

Infographic about height requirements for police officers

Some states have different rules for men and women, in other states, it's one height fits all. And the states of Brandenburg, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saarland have no height requirements whatsoever.

Court wants more clarity

Rettinghaus believes other states should follow the example of those like Brandenburg and do away with a set height rule. He says there are enough other criteria that help those in charge to pick the best possible candidates to join the force, like applicants' general fitness level, and that not reaching a certain height shouldn't prevent a highly qualified candidate from becoming a police officer.

"We're always advertising that we only want the best candidates," Rettinghaus said. "And if the best are one or two centimeters shorter, we should take them at one or two centimeters shorter because that's the only way it makes sense."

In North-Rhine Westphalia, where Johanna Dillmann now has the chance to become a police officer, the current height requirements still hold in general. But the judges in Dillmann's case strongly suggested the state's new government should sign the regulation into law if they want to keep it. That would prevent more people from going to court. The other alternative: to get rid of the requirement all together. North Rhine-Westphalia would hardly be the first state to do so.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker