A conservative Bavarian party wants to include not just the nationality but the ethnic background of criminals in police statistics. The controversial proposal is rejected by many as populist and misleading.
There are fears the practice could result in discriminatory policing
Currently, police crime statistics (PKS) in Germany list the nationality of offenders but not their ethnicity. The exception is Berlin, where stats on juvenile offenders include information on ethnic origin. In October 2008, police in the German capital also began listing the ethnicity of adult offenders in a test project to gauge whether the information could help in combating crime.
This week, however, Berlin’s Social Democrat Interior Minister Ehrhart Koerting announced that the practice had produced "no satisfying results" and would not be adopted, thereby averting a row within the city’s coalition government.
A majority in both the Social Democratic Party and the Left Party reject the practice, not least because no definitive definition of ethnicity exists.
"It is unclear how far back a supposed ethnic background should be traced," railed Sevim Dagdelen of the Left Party. "Would there be a special office looking into people’s family trees?"
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But the political Right in the rest of the country is not quite ready to drop the issue. In January, a call to include ethnicity in the nationwide PKS came from Peter Ramsauer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Ramsauer, the head of the CSU's parliamentary group, argued that the information was vital to effective crime prevention.
"If we are to clamp down on criminals, we need to know where they are coming from," he said in early January.
The move met with broad support among the Christian Democratic Union, with various members advocating comprehensive statistical information including ethnic data as a prerequisite to informed policy making.
Moreover, Sven Petke, deputy leader of the party in Brandenburg, told daily Handelsblatt last week that crime statistics are increasingly misleading given the rise in the number of naturalized Germans.
Between 2004 and 2007, the percentage of non-German offenders fell from 22.9 to 21.4 percent.
Conversely, Petke pointed out, the recent hike in the numbers of Germans involved in organized crime merely reflects the fact that a growing number of Russians have gained German citizenship.
"The fact that ethnic origin is not included in crime statistics leads to unacceptable factual distortions," he said.
The roots of crime
But Germany's Commissioner for Integration Maria Boehmer insists that tackling crime requires more far-reaching strategies.
"Unless the many causes of crime are also taken into consideration, this proposal sends a wrong signal to many of Germany's immigrants who are keen to integrate," she said, stressing that these causes can include problematic family backgrounds or a lack of prospects -- circumstances found in both German and immigrant milieus.
Critics of the CSU proposal, such as representatives of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, say data on factors such as education and income is more relevant.
"(Collecting ethnic data) would simplify not clarify the issue" said Barbara John in an interview with Welt Online.
"Changing criminal statistics gathering without any qualified research into the roots of crime is not appropriate," agreed Boehmer.
Nonetheless, Rainer Wendt, President of the German Police Union believes that a refusal to acknowledge ethnic factors in crime is unhelpful.
"We consider it necessary to examine the connection between immigrants and their sense of what is right and wrong in order to identify possible deficits and to tackle them effectively," he says. "Ignorance concerning such connections can lead to resentment of people with immigrant backgrounds."
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Equally, however, the information could also lead to discriminatory practices and stigmatization. One consequence could be selective over-policing, such as a heavier police presence in certain areas or a concentration on policing particular ethnic groups.
Wendt admits that statistical information linking crime and ethnicity could lend itself to manipulation.
"We believe that this information should be gathered but not made widely available," he says. "The data should be used solely for research purposes."
Others, meanwhile, are convinced the CSU proposal is simply a desperate attempt to rally voters in an election year.
"This is populist right-wing rabble-rousing," said Sebastian Edathy, interior affairs expert for the Social Democrats, in the daily taz.