Police Criticized for Using Mobile Phone Messaging | Current Affairs | DW | 18.02.2004
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Current Affairs

Police Criticized for Using Mobile Phone Messaging

After more than a year of testing, Germany's interior ministry has announced police will start using SMS text messages to track down criminals. Critics say the plan encourages spying and is not effective.


No more wanted posters. Today's police send out an SMS.

A bank has just been robbed. A prisoner has escaped. A bus has been hijacked. And now the police are conducting a mass manhunt to find the culprit.

Calling all public-minded citizens!

In 10 German cities regional police start their search for escaped criminals and missing persons by reaching for their mobile phones and sending out a short text message. The people on the ground ready to help are the hundreds of voluntarily registered "spotters" -- like taxi and bus drivers or city workers -- who have agreed to cooperate with the police to track down suspected criminals by sending in their tips.

Organized by the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), the SMS crime tracking method has been functioning as a test project in regional police departments since September 2002. But now German Interior Minister Otto Schily has announced that it will become a regular feature in police work throughout the country.

"It's another precise way to have the public help search for criminals or missing people," Schily said at a press conference earlier in the week.

Spy on your neighbor

Not everyone is pleased with the method. Critics have been quick to pounce on the concept of asking the public to join the police in fighting crime. Jörg Tauss, media spokesman for the Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary faction -- Schily's own party -- fears that the new method will encourage citizens to spy on and "denounce" their neighbors and other people. He called on Schily to stop at once this "latest nonsense from police circles."

Rainer Lingenthal of the Federal Interior Ministry rejected the criticism and urged Tauss to reconsider and retract his remarks about denunciation. The SPD's domestic policy spokesman, Dieter Wiefelspütz, said the SMS search method was an additional possibility that should be tried out, but he conceded that miracles could not be expected from it.

However, Schily said the new method could significantly improve crime fighting. Speaking at a press conference last Sunday, the minister emphasized the need for the police to exhaust all possibilities in their attempts to capture a perpetrator immediately after a crime has been committed.

"The speedy and direct involvement of citizens enables new forms of cooperation between police and the population," he said adding that using SMS increased the probability of tracking down the criminal and quickly clearing up the crime.

Ministry claims "considerable success"

According to the Interior Ministry, the police achieved "considerable success" during the year-long trial period.

Introduced at 11 police stations around the country, the SMS search method involved the registry of between 50 and 100 volonteers in each location, many of whom were involved in public transport and worked in close proximity to the public. Messages sent out by the police often included descriptions of suspects and vehicle information such as licence plate numbers.

Anyone who receives the information and makes a positive identification can call a special hotline at the local police station. For those a little hesitant, there's a financial incentive: should the information provided by the SMS receiver lead to the apprehension and conviction of a wanted person, the police will give the citizen a reward of around 50 euros.

Based on the positive results of the tests in all the major German cities, the BKA has decided to employ the SMS function in all its police departments.

Media say only "modest successes"

However, media reports refer only to "modest successes" so far. The Ostthüringer Zeitung newspaper reported that during a test in the eastern city of Jena there had been no concrete relation between effort and use.

Even police are not convinced of the method's effectiveness. The states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, as well as the police in Cologne, have said they do not want to take part in the project. Other federal states have not yet decided.

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  • Date 18.02.2004
  • Author DW Staff (BP)
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  • Date 18.02.2004
  • Author DW Staff (BP)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/4gl7