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Cologne main train station
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hitij

What happened in Cologne?

Dagmar Breitenbach
January 7, 2016

In the week since New Year's Eve, 121 women in Cologne have filed criminal complaints of sexual assault, theft, and, in two accounts, rape. Why did it take days before the extent of events became known?


A week after the shocking events in downtown Cologne on New Year's Eve, many conversations on the streets and on social media revolve around one key question: why did it take the police and most media until Monday to realize what had really happened that night in front of and near the city's main train station?

A chronology:

On New Year's Eve, about 400 to 500 young men had gathered outside the city's main train station and its famed Gothic cathedral by 9 p.m. Two hours later, their number had risen to at least 1,000, and many were drunk and out of control, according to Cologne police press spokesman Karlo Kreitz.

Too many all at once

A half hour before midnight, the police cleared and shut down the area in front of the train station, including the wide steps leading up to the cathedral, fearing panicked reactions because people were firing fireworks into the crowd, Kreitz told DW. The area reopened before 1 a.m. on New Year's Day to allow revelers to catch their trains and subways.

That night, a few crying distraught women turned to the police for help, describing that they had been fondled and/or robbed on the square in front of the main train station by young, drunk men that looked North African or Arab. That, however, appears to not have alerted the officers to a situation that was getting out of hand.

According to spokesman Kreitz, more than 140 police officers were on duty that night in Cologne. "It was dark, all you see is a mass of heads," Kreitz said, adding that people underestimate the dynamics a situation involving a highly aggressive mob.

"Nothing unusual" on New Year's Eve

At around nine a.m. on New Year's Day, the Cologne police in a press statement described the night as "relaxed" and mostly peaceful - an assessment they soon had to correct as a grave misinterpretation.

"On January 1, the dimension of the events wasn't clear at all, because complaints only came in bit by bit," spokesman Kreitz argued.

New Year's Eve crowd Cologne
New Year's Eve nightmare in CologneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Böhm

Sporadic reports of harassment and sexual assaults started emerging on Facebook, and a local paper quoted two young women who recounted groping and theft, as well as the police force's apparent helplessness.

As January 2 - Saturday - drew to a close, 30 women had registered criminal complaints for sexual harassment and theft. Local police - now becoming more aware of what really happened that night - started an investigation.

Little solid information

On Sunday, more witnesses and victims offered information and accounts of the Cologne NYE harassments.

On Monday, the German press started to pick up on the story. At a press conference, Cologne police reported on their findings, which chief of police Wolfgang Albers termed "a new dimension of crime." The number of criminal complaints had risen to 60.

As more details about that night began to emerge, politicians reacted, too. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum called for the perpetrators to be punished to the full extent of the law.

The number of criminal complaints had already risen to 90.

In a crisis meeting on Tuesday, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker discussed the matter with leading city authorities and the police. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas denounced the assaults, saying that police were dealing with a "completely new dimension of organized crime." Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement that the crimes call "for a tough response from the law," regardless of their background.

By Wednesday, the world was looking at Cologne, with European and US media reporting on the events.

Chaotic night

Similar crimes were committed by men that looked "Mediterranean or Arab" in the northern city of Hamburg, where 53 complaints of theft and sexual assault were filed. The police said there was no link to the Cologne attacks.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker said there is no indication the suspects are asylum-seekers, but the crimes have triggered a fierce debate in Germany about the repercussions of allowing more than one million migrants to enter the country in 2015.

Police are now analyzing cell phone pictures and videos as well as surveillance camera videos, and checking them against social media. The number of criminal complaints filed by victims as of Thursday stood at 121. Sixteen people are being investigated in connection with the crimes. The local Cologne newspaper "Express", quoting an unnamed policeman, reported that arrests had been made and of these at least 14 are said to be Syrians and one Afghan, all of whom have only been in Germany for several weeks. A similar incident involving refugees was also reported to have taken place in November in Bonn, 20 kilometers south of Cologne, said the city's newspaper "Bonner General-Anzeiger" in a report published on Thursday. The police there are now investigating.

It's clear the police are going to have to adapt to a new situation, Cologne police spokesman Kreitz conceded.

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