1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Berlin pool violence sparks law and order debate

Helen Whittle
July 18, 2023

After a series of violent incidents in Germany's capital, Berlin, security guards, and compulsory ID checks have been introduced at open-air pools.

A boy is seen mid-air as he jumps off a diving block. Below him the pool and pool grounds are crowded with people.
Outdoor swimming pools are popular with those who stay in Berlin over summerImage: Julian Weber/dpa/picture alliance

Barely a week into the school summer vacation period and the German capital's open-air swimming pools have already become the political football of the day.

Following violent incidents involving dozens of youths, visitors to the city's open-air pools this week have had to show a photo ID and have their bags checked by teams of newly-hired security guards. 

The measures — including mobile police units — were introduced by Berlin's newly elected mayor Kai Wegner of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in response to a series of incidents.

"We don't want lawless spaces," Wegner told reporters at a press conference at open-air pool Prinzenbad in the central district of Kreuzberg on July 13. 

Swimmers at Prinzenbad seemed unconvinced the new measures would do much to improve the situation.

"I don't know if it will help at all," said a middle-aged man with two toddlers in tow. "I've never had problems at any pools. Sometimes it gets a bit riotous among the youngsters, but that's normal." 

"I don't see what it would change — we've never felt unsafe at the pool," two young men in their early twenties told DW.

Pool staff frustrated

Police closed the Columbiabad open-air pool in the southern district of Neukölln after a brawl in early July and remained closed the following week when too many staff had called in sick. 

People stand in line outside a swimming pool
Neukölln's Columbiabad had to remain closed when too many staff called in sickImage: Vladimir Menck/SULUPRESS.DE/picture alliance

A letter sent to management at Berlin Municipal Pools (BBB) dated June 13, seen by Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, said staff were regularly subjected to verbal and physical attacks, including spitting and swearing. 

Describing the "intolerable scale of events," the letter said that employees, female customers and minorities — particularly trans and queer people — had increasingly been threatened with violence.

Statistics from the Berlin police show that 57 violent crimes were reported in the capital's outdoor pools in 2022. Berlin's outdoor pools have barred close to 1,300 people in the past five years — 80* have been barred by July 18 this year, a figure comparable to that of last year. 

Call for 'fast-track justice'

In the wake of the latest incidents, the CDU's new general secretary Carsten Linnemann called for same-day prosecutions for perpetrators.

"Anyone who attacks people in an open-air swimming pool at lunchtime must sit before a judge in the evening and be sentenced. Even on the weekend," Linnemann told the mass-circulation national newspaper Bild am Sonntag

Carsten Linnemann
CDU secretary-general Carsten Linnemann has called for fast-tracked prosecutionsImage: Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture alliance

"Families who cannot afford a vacation or a pool in their own backyard have to watch young men, often with a migration background, become violent in the open-air swimming pool," he added in an attempt to pin the blame on immigrants — a tactic deployed by the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is currently polling as the second most popular party in the country.

The center-left Social Democrats' legal policy spokesperson Sonja Eichwede dismissed the proposal as "pure populism," saying it "failed to recognize the principles of the rule of law and the reality facing the judiciary." 

The German Judges' Association (DRB) also criticized Linnemann's remarks. "It's not very convincing when politicians call for the strong rule of law with a resolute pose on Sunday, but do little about it from Monday to Saturday," DRB spokesperson Sven Rebehn told the Tagesspiegel

Berlin's mayor Kai Wegner has already tried and failed to get a fast-tracked trial to prosecute climate protesters this year — a judge rejected the application on the grounds that more time was needed to examine the details of the case.

A matter of deterrence

Implementing a system of "fast-track justice" for those accused of violence at open-air pools isn't straightforward, according to Volker Boehme-Nessler, a professor of public law at Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg. 

"We have the rule of law and typical of the rule of law is that a court has to examine a case very closely before reaching a verdict," Boehme-Nessler told DW. "Justice is slow for a very good reason, because then cases are examined thoroughly. It favors hearing one witness too many rather than one too few."

Fast-tracked trials are sometimes granted under German law, but only under very limited circumstances. One requirement is that the facts of the situation and the evidence are absolutely clear. Another is that the expected penalty is less than one year in prison. 

"However, if 20 young people somehow go at each other at the swimming pool and fight each other, then it becomes complicated […] there's no way a fast-track trial could be held," said Boehme-Nessler. 

Police car standing outside the Columbiabad in Neukölln
Berlin police have stepped up their presence outside several swimming poolsImage: Paul Zinken/dpa/picture alliance

Better to invest in conflict management training

Occasional skirmishes and rowdiness are to be expected at open-air pools where there is a high density of young people trying to act cool in one small area, says Thomas Bliesener, an expert on juvenile crime at the Criminological Research Institute in Lower Saxony (KFN). 

He says that there is no evidence to suggest that the threat of fast-tracked prosecution works as a deterrent. "We know that the threat of punishment hardly has any effect on potential criminals," Bliesener told DW. 

"There's a special dynamic to these crimes ... and then if a prosecution fails it could have a boomerang effect if no one is held responsible — it would embolden [people] to commit more crime."

Bliesener believes it would be more effective to invest in conflict management training for pool staff. "The ability to enforce entry bans and barring people when it is clear who has done what would also strengthen the authority of the personnel," he said. 

Pool violence not unique to Germany

Outbreaks of violence at outdoor pools are not unique to Germany. Similar incidents have recently been reported in France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the reaction by authorities has been similar: 

In the city of Terneuzen close to the Belgian border in the Netherlands, authorities introduced compulsory ID checks, barred entry to swimmers from outside the local area and equipped staff with body cams. 

Authorities increased security and temporarily allowed children and young people entrance only in the company of an adult at a pool 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Paris after a brawl involving 40 to 50 youths there. 

In Berlin, the next controversy is already brewing: Berlin's data commissioner Meike Kamp wants to examine whether the new security measures — including compulsory ID checks — are compatible with data protection law.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

*An earlier version of this article stated that "25 have already been barred this year", however these were the figures only until including June. 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.