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Minorities 'under-represented in German police'

January 31, 2017

People of immigrant backgrounds are still massively under-represented in German police forces, according to a new survey. Though some are trying to close the gap, institutional racism is still a major problem.

Düsseldorf Polizei Auszubildende mit Migrationshintergrund
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Minorities are still significantly under-represented in most of Germany's state police forces, despite efforts to address the issue, a new survey by the "Mediendienst Integration" ("media service integration") has shown. Even though some have made attempts to deliberately recruit minorities, figures show a gap in nearly every state.

In Schleswig-Holstein, 5.4 percent of applicants were of immigrant background, comprising 3.5 percent of new recruits, against an immigrant population of 13.2 percent. In Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, only 11.7 percent of recruits had an immigrant background, compared to 25.6 percent of the population. The Berlin and Saxony-Anhalt police forces, on the other hand, had much better records, with a percentage of immigrant-background recruits actually above the population average. The federal police, meanwhile, have not collected data on recruit figures, though the interior ministry said that such a survey was being planned.

Praise is worthless for underpaid police

But the survey did find positive efforts in general, with more and more police forces collecting data on diversity in their own ranks and specifically trying to recruit among minority communities - three years ago, only six states bothered to find out, while now 10 do, and Mediendienst Integration noted that now more recruitment advertising shows ethnically diverse officers.

Questionable effect

Aleksandra Lewicki, a sociologist at Berlin's Free University specializing in institutional racism in Germany and the UK, said police forces in Britain have increasingly tried to recruit ethnic minority populations - but whether different recruitment strategies on their own combat institutional racism is another matter. "It's one of those measures that's easily done," she told DW. "By bringing people in they seem to think they can fulfill some sort of magic to show they're not racist - which are partly wrong assumptions. Increasing the number of ethnic minority people doesn't necessarily remedy racism - but just the fact that an institution pays attention to under-representation is definitely an important first step to addressing racism."

If the UK police are slightly further ahead of their German counterparts when it comes to countering racism, it is partly down to the mobilization of ethnic minority communities in response to the fallout from the racist murder of the teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. A 1998 public inquiry into the murder investigation concluded that London's Metropolitan Police Service was institutionally racist, and recruiting minority groups into the force was one of the measures proposed.

The clearest parallel to this in Germany was the police investigations into the racist killings carried out by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terror cell that murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007 before it was uncovered in 2011. "In every single case - whether it was in Saxony-Anhalt or Bavaria - the police forces independently of each other looked into the backgrounds of the victims," she said. "They each decided: here's a Turkish person, they must be involved in drugs or some other crime. In every single instance, the police interviewed families, and it occurred to nobody across the country that a racist crime might be at stake."

For Lewicki, the various parliamentary inquiries that examined the police failings have not sufficiently clarified the situation. "Their findings point to all the symptoms of institutional racism, but they don't conclude that what they see is institutional racism," she said. "[German officials] avoid the word racism, because they equate racism with crimes such as the Holocaust - they don't understand that racism can sometimes mean an institution operates in such a way that it produces discriminatory outcomes."

Deutschland Terror Neue Durchsuchungen gegen mutmaßliche Nazi-Terrorhelfer Kombo
The NSU killed nine people of immigrant background in eight yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Karneval in Köln
German police admitted to racially profiling suspects in Cologne on New Year's EveImage: DW/A. Almakhlafi

Racial profiling and murder

From this point of view, whether individual police officers happen to be racist is irrelevant - police forces need to implement measures that prevent discriminatory judgments from affecting investigations, as appeared to happen in the NSU murder cases. "If that happens systemically, then you cannot just improve the cooperation between the police forces," she said. "Following the Stephen Lawrence case, Britain's anti-discrimination law in the public services was strengthened considerably - so that they have to make sure that the services they deliver adequately speak to the needs of the different population groups. And that's definitely something we're miles away from in Germany."

The recent debate about racial profiling re-surfaced again following events in Cologne on New Year's Eve. "Not only did they do it, but they used racist terms in tweeting about it," said Lewicki. "There is lots of evidence that racial profiling is systematically applied across the country, although it is obviously illegal."

"I would say that in terms of realizing that this is an issue, the debate in the UK is much more advanced," concluded Lewicki. "Police leadership is aware that there is a problem, and this is something that so far the police leadership in Germany, but also the political leadership, has insufficiently engaged with. But that is not to say that there isn't still a lot of institutional racism in the UK."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight