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Police violence in Germany: An underreported problem?

September 17, 2019

Police violence is a contentious issue in most countries, with Germany being no exception. A recent study suggests that there could be more instances of violence by law enforcement than official statistics show.

Hamburg G20 Polizisten mit Schlagstöcken
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Marks

Violence meted out by German police forces is going unreported and unpunished, according to a research paper into victims of police violence published by the Ruhr University Bochum on Tuesday.

There could be around five times more cases of police violence than those that are recorded in the official statistics, estimated the three criminologists led by Professor Tobias Singelnstein.

Read more: In Germany, states roll out stun guns despite risks

Over 3,300 people who answered the survey had experienced police violence. Comparatively, official statistics into police violence for 2018 compiled by public prosecutors recorded a total of 2,000 cases of illegal uses of violence by the police.

'A lot of people not reporting police violence'

"We were surprised at how many responses we had to the study," said Laila Abdul-Rahman, who carried out the Ruhr University Bochum research together with Hannah Espin Grau and Singelnstein."There are a lot of people not reporting police violence."

A further unexpected finding, she added, was the low number of claims and prosecutions against police persons for violent acts against the public.

Infographic: Police violence in Germany EN

The study found that criminal proceedings were carried out in 9% of cases when it came to instances of police violence at political demonstrations, making it the least likely situation to have an alleged case of police violence followed up by the German criminal justice system. At football matches there were criminal proceedings in 16% of the cases.

In just 7% of cases the charges were upheld, while 69%, the majority of claims, were not upheld due to insufficient evidence.

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For Abdul-Rahman this is due to a number of reasons, such as football fans and protesters being advised by their lawyers against bringing charges as they could end up facing prosecution themselves.

Further contributing factors were the police not being identifiable when there is a large police presence, in addition to the lack of a clear division between police and the organizations which deal with police complaints, the criminologist explained.

'Objective clarification'

The German Police Union (GdP), however, disputed the findings in a statement, calling for an "objective clarification." The GdP also argued the number of prosecutions against the police was not due to a "systemic failure," saying public prosecutors were responsible for the increase in charges brought.

"Of course every instance of illegal police violence is a problem for the constitutional state," said Oliver Malchow, federal chairman of the GdP. "But it is just as problematic if one can no longer trust the constitutional state to prosecute such cases impartially and in accordance with the accepted rules."

German police - on patrol with bodycams

Malchow added that he suspects a decline in respect for the German police could lead to more aggressive conflict situations between law enforcement and the citizenry.

Further findings from the report

Despite the results of the study not being applicable to a wider German public, the study is the first of its kind investigating the types of violence that people experience. The researchers hope to offer insight into the "mechanisms and causes" of police violence in order to better understand a contentious issue.

The report found:

  • Those at political demonstrations and participating in political direct action were most likely to experience police violence.
  • High instances of violence by police were also reported at football matches
  • Being hit or punched were the most common types of violence, reported by 62% of respondents.

What next?

The team of criminologists from the university will conduct further research into these statistics. They plan to gather the perspectives of police and lawyers, in addition to further exploring complaints from victims of police violence.

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Kate Martyr
Kate Martyr Editor and video producer at DW's Asia Desk and News Digital