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Protectors as victims?

Heiner Kiesel / bkOctober 15, 2012

A police officer's work is becoming ever more dangerous - at least that's what politicians and many officers say - and they're backed up by frightening images in the media. But statistics tell a different story.

Zwei Beamte der Bundespolizei, von denen einer eine Maschinenpistole in den Haenden haelt (r.), patroullieren am Mittwoch (17.11.10) auf dem Flughafen Leipzig/Halle in der Naehe von Schkeuditz. Bundesinnenminister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU) hat wegen der neuen terroristischen Bedrohungslage in Deutschland eine "sichtbare Polizeipraesenz" angekuendigt. Diese mit den Laendern abgestimmten verschaerften Sicherheitsmassnahmen an Flughaefen und Bahnhoefen sollten "bis auf weiteres" gelten, sagte der CDU-Politiker am Mittwoch in Berlin. (zu dapd-Text) Foto: Jens Schlueter/dapd
Bundespolizei - PolizeiImage: dapd

At first glance, federal police detective Sven Kaden looks like he barely needs the equipment he dons every day before work - bulletproof vest, baton, firearm. He is not very big, but he is broad-shouldered. Strong and fit, Kaden is often on duty at Berlin's central train station.

From a perch above the platforms, he has a useful vantage point for observing the crowds. "You train yourself to separate people into dangerous and not dangerous," he said. He added that he feels like the threat of violence is increasing. "About a year ago, five colleagues wanted to arrest a suspect. He turned out to be high, and bit an officer in the leg."

(ACAB - All Cops Are Bastards) Graffiti Berlin Copyright: DW/Heiner Kiesel
Anti-police graffiti is visible in many German citiesImage: DW/H.Kiesel

Kaden's colleagues in the German federal police are often on duty in situations that result in spectacular outbreaks of violence - events such as May 1 demonstrations in Berlin, or protests against nuclear waste transports, or riots at football stadiums.

Police union representatives and politicians make public statements after such events almost reflexively, condemning the "increasing" violence against the police. "That these officers get attacked and their health is endangered is a development that we cannot accept," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said recently.

Guarding the guards

Politicians who publicly defend police officers are often seen as protecting the protectors. As a position that projects strength, it's a beneficial stance for a political leader to take.

The German parliament recently increased sentences for violence against law officers, from two to three years. Several parliamentarians, especially those belonging to the governing coalition, expressed a conviction that there had been a drastic increase of violence against the police.

Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich Foto: Axel Schmidt/dapd
Friedrich said violence against officers is unacceptableImage: dapd

Many law enforcement officers as well seem to believe that the relationship between the population and those charged with protecting it has worsened. "We're always the bad guy," said senior inspector Thomas Stetefeld.

As a Berlin patroller, Stetefeld believes that society is losing respect for him and his colleagues. Facing exaggerated ignorance, verbal abuse, t-shirts with the acronym A.C.A.B. - for "All Cops Are Bastards" - Stetefeld no longer feels comfortable on the streets.

Statistical gaps

Christian Pfeiffer, director of a criminological research institute in Lower Saxony, recently presented his new study, "Police as victims of violence."

Pfeiffer said the study shows that facing aggression is part of a policeman's everyday life. His study garnered much attention, not least because it included examination of not necessarily criminal forms of violence. Although many see Pfeiffer's study as evidence of increased violence, he himself disagrees.

"I don't believe that the 'everything is getting worse' argument is true here - after all, this is just a snapshot," he said, adding that since society is getting older and more peaceful, it follows that the police's working conditions are, too.

Christian Pfeiffer, Copyright: DW/Heiner Kiesel
Pfeiffer's study attracted a lot of attentionImage: DW/H.Kiesel

Official figures, such as on resistance to police officers, also point to this conclusion. Such resistance dropped again in 2011, by 241 cases to 21,257.

According to a report by the project group "Violence against Police Officers," set up by the German Interior Ministers' Conference, probably fewer than 1 percent of such incidents led to officers being seriously injured. Around a quarter led to minor injuries, while three quarters resulted in no damage to health at all.

But actual trends are hard to determine.

Society as perpetrator

But even if the violence is not actually increasing, is it perhaps getting more brutal? "The intensity has risen significantly," said Michael Eckerskorn of the police's sociological service, who has spoken to numerous officers who have been involved in violence. "It is quite alarming how some aggressors deliberately try to cause severe injury."

But Rafael Behr, professor at the police's higher education institute in Hamburg, does not think gathering impressions from officers on the street proves anything. "There is no reliable statistical evidence that police service is getting harder," he said.

"What is beyond doubt is that the perception of violence through the media and officers has grown," Behr said. He added that there is still a debate within the force about what actually constitutes violence.

Behr is troubled by the current tendency in presenting officers as victims and the constantly call on society to respect its protectors. He warned that this could depress officers' motivation.

Behr concluded that "society can't really be changed, but police work can always be improved."