German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said the government will launch a study on racism within the police force after all. It appears the interior minister has finally relented, which is a good thing, says Hans Pfeifer.
A police officer's job is not easy. Pickpockets, tricksters, thugs, robbers, murderers, extremists and drunk drivers are not necessarily the kind of company most people dream of on the job.
That's particularly true when much of the job doesn't unfold in a warm office with a coffee machine, but out on the streets, in full view of society. For that alone, police officers deserve recognition and the loyalty of politicians.
For months Germans have increasingly been debating how far this loyalty should go. The number of worrying reports of right-wing extremist and racist incidents in the police force has also been on the rise for months — some are misdemeanors by individual officials, some involve entire networks of uniformed admirers of Adolf Hitler. Security authorities are affected at all levels, from regular police precincts to special task forces, the domestic intelligence service, trainees — in practically every German state.
All the same, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer steadfastly refused to admit Germany's security agencies had structural problems. He said 99% of officers do their jobs correctly, which is why he has always rejected a study on racism within the police force.
But Seehofer has come under increasing pressure as civil society groups, scientists, experts and a growing number of state interior ministers have demanded just such a study.
Now Seehofer appears prepared to go ahead with the study, but only under certain circumstances. The government will reportedly investigate racism within the security forces only as part of a large-scale study on the everyday experiences of police officers. Exact details were not made available.
The decision is a step in the right direction, but it is not clear how far that step will go. Of course, every study is only as good as the questions it poses.
No police officer would put his or her job at risk by answering "yes" to the question: "Are you a follower of Adolf Hitler?" That's why it is important to grasp the complexity of inhuman attitudes.
The details are also important. Will the study only reflect obvious hostility and degradation, or also subtle discrimination based on a person's skin color, name or origins? These details are important to tackle potential structural problems.
This has failed so far because of the security authorities' refusal to open up and because politicians' loyalty to their police officers has been absolute.
A more "critical loyalty" like that urged by Rafael Behr, a former police officer and who is now a professor at the Hamburg Police Academy, would make much more sense: Because police officers do dangerous work, they of course deserve the citizenry's support.
But because the police also have a monopoly on the use of force in the state, questioning their work should be a matter of course, too. To quote German conflict and violence researcher Wilhelm Heitmeyer: "Every open society and liberal democracy has an unconditional right to know what is going on in its institutions equipped with the monopoly on violence."
No one needs to fear a scientific study that gets to the bottom of the problem. In an open society, conflicts and problems are not bad news, but templates for development and improvement.