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Killing of youth sparks debate about German police brutality

August 12, 2022

Four police operations, four deaths, one week. Germany is once again discussing police violence and racism. The latest victim was a 16-year-old refugee who was shot with a machine gun.

Policemen holding guns
The latest case involves a knife-wielding teenager who was shot by Dortmund policeImage: Eibner/imago images

Was it self-defense or excessive police violence? This is the question many people in Germany are asking after a 16-year-old from Senegal was shot during a police operation.

The incident took place Monday in the city of Dortmund, in the country's most-populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). The caretaker of a youth welfare facility called the police for help dealing with a youth who was experiencing mental distress. The caretaker feared that Mohammed D.*, who had arrived as an unaccompanied minor from Senegal, was going to kill himself with a knife.

The police arrive and used stun guns and pepper spray — without success. Officers say the situation escalated out of control when the teenager threatened them with his knife. One of them shot Mohammed at least five times with a semiautomatic machine gun. The boy died in a local hospital shortly thereafter.

Now, the 29-year-old police officer who fired the shots is under investigation, routine procedure any time there is a fatal police shooting.

Candles and flowers on the pavement whee the youth was killed
The news of the shooting left inhabitants of Dortmund's Nordstadt district badly shakenImage: Dieter Menne/dpa/picture alliance

History of tension

Mohammed's death came on the heels of several other fatal incidents involving police. In the cities of Frankfurt and Cologne, two men also allegedly wielding knives were recently killed by police, and in Oer-Erkenschwick a 39-year-old man died after officers used pepper spray on him.

The shooting has also prompted several protests against police brutality in Dortmund, with demonstrators chanting "murderer, murderer" at the security services.

Mohammed was killed in Dortmund's Nordstadt district, an area that has repeatedly made headlines following reports of police abuse. Relations between officers and the residents, most of them people of color and immigrants, are extremely tense.

Thomas Feltes, a lawyer who specializes in cases involving the police, told DW that officers in Dortmund's Nordstadt are not known for their cultural sensitivity. Racist police stops and questioning are the order of the day there, Feltes said.

Dortmund protester holding up sign reading "talk rather than shoot"
The shooting has prompted protests against police brutality in Dortmund, with demonstrators urging police to talk rather than shootImage: Roberto Pfeil/dpa/picture alliance

Police training in need of reform

Asked whether the outcome would have been the same if the victim had been a white German, Feltes declined to speculate. However, he said, it is worth noting that issues in communication arose with a victim who spoke no German and officers who spoke only German and that the killing "fits into a pattern that the police in Nordstadt are repeatedly accused of."

Police still have far to go in the fight against racism and antisemitism, and not only in Dortmund. According to new research by the Migration Media Service, these topics are rarely covered in police training. So far, the only German states to have conducted independent studies on racism within police forces are Berlin, Lower Saxony and Rhineland-Palatinate.

NRW Interior Minister Herbert Reul, a member of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), has so far dismissed reports that the police acted improperly. He said use of firearms was quite common when threatening situations escalate, which was true in this case because the boy was running toward the barricaded police.

"It became threatening," Reul said, "and then one of the officers fired shots from a distance to prevent harm to the others."

Lawmakers question police response

Michael Maatz, the deputy chairman of the NRW police union, told DW that he thinks people underestimate the threat during knife attacks. If the perpetrator hits an artery, he said, you can bleed to death almost immediately. Maatz appealed for understanding that officers "have to decide within seconds how to stop such an attack" and the firearms were only "a last resort" after all other methods to de-escalate a situation had been expended.

Some lawmakers, however, have questioned whether this procedure was followed. Nicole Gohlke, the deputy spokeswoman for the socialist Left Party in Germany's federal parliament, wrote on Twitter that it was not explicable how "the 11 police officers present did not succeed in taking a 16-year-old into custody without him being killed."

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Police not trained for people with mental illness

Verena Schäffer, the leader of the Green parliamentary group in NRW, told the media that she was shocked by the death of the teenager, who had fled to Germany "to have a safe future here."

Criminologist Rafael Behr, of the Hamburg Police Academy, called the incident "unusual." Although a submachine gun is a normal piece of equipment found in police cars, he said, it is only intended for "absolutely exceptional cases."

Feltes flatly condemned the police response as disproportionate. "The teenager did have a knife, but you can't use that to hurt a lot of people in a short time. Especially since the scene of the crime was in an uncrowded area, where only the 11 police officers and the youth were present," he said. Feltes added that they should have exercised restraint and worked to de-escalate the situation.

He downplayed the idea that the multiple deaths in recent weeks were something out of the ordinary, saying police in Germany kill about 20 people a year.

A major issue, Feltes said, is that police are not properly trained in dealing with people in moments of mental distress who may become dangerous to themselves or others. Officers end up "not knowing how to help other than to shoot," especially if the person has not succumbed to pepper spray or stun guns.

"For some mentally ill people, it's more of a signal that they're under a massive attack, and they may feel they have to defend themselves against that," Feltes said.

Demonstrators holding up signs reading "That was murder" and "No justice, no peace" and "Who controls the police?"
"Who controls the police?" was the question asked by protesters in Dortmund this weekImage: Roberto Pfeil/dpa/picture alliance

The integrity of investigations questioned

The German Lawyers Association (DAV) is among the groups demanding that the events surrounding the boy's killing be thoroughly investigated. There are already complaints that the official investigation is compromised because the Dortmund police are investigating the death in Oer-Erkenschwick, which is under the jurisdiction of the city of Recklinghausen. Recklinghausen, in turn, has been tasked with investigating the incident in Dortmund.

The reason for this seeming conflict of interest is that in such cases who investigates whom is a fixed cooperative arrangement. Recklinghausen is always responsible for Dortmund and vice-versa.

Aladin El-Mafaalani, an academic who studies migration in Germany, suggested on Twitter that this arrangement does little to promote trust in the outcome of the investigations.

Feltes said it was "politically extremely clumsy to handle it this way," adding that it would be better to have the state Criminal Police Office or Interior Ministry handle the probes.

Rafael Behr, the criminologist, suggested using an external, independent commission that is not part of the police hierarchy. However, such a body does not exist in Germany.

This article was originally written in German.

*Editor's note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.
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