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Police violence is a real thing in Germany

Milan Gagnon
May 15, 2017

A report in Tageszeitung has found an average of about 10 fatal police shootings in Germany per year. Many of the people killed were experiencing psychological episodes.

Symbolbild Polizei am Kanzleramt
Image: picture-alliance/W. Minich

Eighty-eight percent of respondents to a survey by the magazine Stern earlier this year expressed solid faith in Germany's gendarmes. Critics aside, the survey found that Germans trust their cops more than they trust their doctors (80 percent), more than they trust their chancellor (57 percent) and more than twice as much as they trust their printed press (40 percent). That trust could be a solid foundation for reform now that the printed press, in the form of Berlin's Tageszeitung (TAZ), has broken the news that since 1990 police in Germany have fatally shot at least 269 people.

TAZ journalists Svenja Bednarczyk and Erik Peter arrived at the number through annual reports of fatal police shootings from the magazine Cilip, statistics from the police and media articles. They used fatal police shootings as their metric because it is an approachable number, one that might start a conversation. And one that might save lives.

"As a whole, German police actually shoot very rarely, and there are officers who spend 30 years on the force and never shoot," said Peter, who has long reported on policing for TAZ. "Above all, we wanted to ask how police handle people who are psychologically ill, and I believe that there is the potential for necessary improvement in the way police behave in certain situations," he added. "I would like my research to be a starting point for debate, both public and within the police force, about how police can be better deployed, better trained and better prepared for ill people."    

Infografik Annual number of people killed by police bullets in Germany ENG

Matter of training?

A common thread that Bednarczyk and Peter found is that many of the victims - about half in the past eight years, and six of the seven people killed in police shootings so far in 2017 - were experiencing forms of psychological distress shortly before they were killed. That's something that advocates of reform, such as Behr, have long considered an issue in need of serious attention.

"When a person is holding a knife, the police don't ask if they have psychosis," said Rafael Behr, a professor at Hamburg's police academy. "They handle a dangerous situation the way they've been trained to, and that can lead to a killing. There's no perception that something wrong has occurred. The evaluation of 'dangerous' outweighs the evaluation of 'ill,' so they say: 'Whether he was ill or not, he was dangerous, so we handled him like a threat.'"

Behr said police could avoid this by enlisting psychiatrists, counselors and others who are trained to work with people suffering emotional or psychological breakdowns for emergency situations, rather than attempting to handle it themselves. "That hasn't even been tested," Behr said. "The police have not holistically thought about how to better resolve such situations."    

Infografik Victims with mental illnes ENG

'A German problem'

Police violence is well-documented in the United States, so well-documented that people, even in Germany, tend to think of the US first when they think of police violence. "But here in Germany, there are people - and not just a few - who are killed in these encounters," Peter said. "It's a German problem, if on a much smaller scale than the US."

Because US officers might kill or injure more people in a week than Germany's do in a year, police here are much more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. "The cases of death that are reported here are not like in the US, where unarmed minorities are shot," Behr said. "As a rule, there is not an intent to kill," he added.

But the deaths result - as TAZ reported, about 10 a year in police shootings alone - and they continue: 2017 is outpacing all of the previous years studied. Germany's faith in its cops is impressive and enduring. A good-faith effort on the police's part to retain that trust would be very impressive, as well.