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Civil servants targeted

Nina Werkhäuser / groApril 5, 2016

In Germany, police officers, teachers, firefighters and other public workers are increasingly becoming the target of violent acts. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere plans to implement countermeasures.

Violence growing against public sector employees
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

"You have to listen to quite a few insults that go way below the belt," says Jürgen Augstein. He works at the reception desk in the job center in the small Bavarian town of Hof. As clients "let off the most steam" there, the agency has taken security precautions for its employees: They are never allowed to be alone with a client; they have an emergency button at their disposal and they can quickly withdraw from the situation if they are assaulted.

One simple detail that shows the gravity of the situation is the fact that office utensils, like a metal stapler, cannot lie on top of a desk because they are often thrown at employees. At a conference hosted by the Interior Ministry in Berlin, the receptionist, Augstein, reports that his desk is "cleared" two to four times a week by upset clients and then, the keyboard and phone are sent flying. In recent years, two job center employees have been killed by unemployed attackers.

Verbal and physical abuse

"For a long time now, we have observed a rise in violence and an inappropriate lack of respect towards public sector employees," says German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. "We cannot accept this and will take decisive action." Not only job center workers are affected but also police, firefighters, teachers, municipal workers and tax office employees.

Public sector workers in uniform are particularly affected, especially police. It is evident in the rising numbers of injured and severely injured police officers. "They do not get kicked only once, but five or six times," says the minister with regard to the growing intensity of the violence. The hate that prevails in social networks reinforces this development. "Vulgar language is poison."

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is planning countermeasuresImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

De Maiziere wants to take countermeasures by using technical equipment, like emergency buttons or bodycams mounted on police uniforms to film the officers' surroundings during police operations. Right now, a six-month test phase is running. The president of the riot police, Friedrich Eichele, believes that bodycams "make absolute sense." He is convinced that in a few years, bodycams will be standard equipment on German police forces.

Bring perpetrators of violent acts to justice

Before they get to that stage, police have to defend themselves by using other legal means, says Eichele. If a group of soccer fans chants, "We kill a policeman for every stadium ban," then it is a clear case for judicial authorities. The president of Germany's riot police hopes that if the police provide the appropriate evidence, courts will make sensible decisions on the perpetrators' actions.

The head of the job center in Hof, Uwe Mayer, also asks that attacks not be swept under the carpet, be they physical or verbal. His job center office presses charges when necessary and the courts usually fine the perpetrators or impose a suspended sentence. Mayer says that cases should not be dismissed because of their minor nature. It is also important for the employees in his office as they need to know that management stands behind them.

An injured policeman is helped by colleagues
An injured policeman is helped by colleaguesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Balk

That is not the case in all agencies, schools and institutions. Affected persons often have to hear things like, "It's not such a big deal," when they report vulgar behavior or insults to their supervisors. The managing director of the German Social Accident Insurance says these people are often branded as wimps. "An insult is also inacceptable," says Breuer and it can, like a physical attack, be considered to be a work accident. In light of the 16,000 cases filed for insured Germans every year, there must be a zero tolerance policy.

Stricter penalties being discussed

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere plans to ask the interior ministers of the 16 German states whether the current penalties for resistance against law enforcement are sufficient, or if they should be stricter. Furthermore, the minister suspects that in Germany, a false impression has been created of a citizen being a customer who must always be treated well by the state, regardless of their own behavior. This, of course, does not reflect reality. That is why there is a necessity for "a major social debate about treating each other with respect, courtesy and decency."