• Berlin
  • When cops act like thugs


When cops act like thugs

A decade of Exberliner continues online with a series of our 10 best features throughout the years – from critical to hysterical to heart-breaking. Day six revisits our Polizei investigation with victim testimonies, including video footage.

Image for When cops act like thugs
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

A tourist handcuffed for a missing ticket; an expat bullied and ‘kidnapped’ by rogue cops; demonstrators kicked, punched or bruised – police abuse is a daily reality in Berlin. But what makes it all worse is the impunity enjoyed by the aggressors: last year, less than one percent of officers charged with assault were convicted. EXBERLINER investigates.

It was the first time she had been handcuffed. Sarah-Jane stumbled behind the police officer who dragged her through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station. Tears ran down her cheeks as she tried to make sense of what was happening to her: just two hours before, Sarah-Jane – a 22-year-old Londoner with long, blond hair and a slender, delicate physique – had been an ordinary tourist making her way by U-Bahn to a festival at Stattbad Wedding. But now she was being treated like a criminal: “like a dog,” as she could still vividly recall months later.

“Your mum can’t help you now”

BVG inspectors had asked Sarah-Jane for her ticket – and she had been unable to produce one. “I’m a little chaotic at times. I had put it in my big bag, maybe carelessly – I just couldn’t find it!” Her German wasn’t great, and when asked for her ID, she tried to explain that she didn’t have her passport with her either: she didn’t carry it around for fear of losing it. The inspectors took her off the train, and that’s when things got weird: the fine was, they claimed, €140 and, no, of course she couldn’t simply buy a new ticket. Four of them surrounded her, speaking in harsh German – and finally decided to put her in a small room at the end of the platform.

To Sarah-Jane, it was clear at that point that something was going completely wrong. For one thing, she had heard that the fine for riding without a ticket was no more than €40. So when the inspectors finally threatened to call the police, she was relieved. They would sort it out. She was just a tourist who’d lost her ticket, that was all. Except that it wasn’t.

By the time the two policemen arrived, she was in tears. After an hour in the tiny room, she still had no idea what was going on, and had been made to feel totally insecure by the German she couldn’t understand properly. But now the police whom she thought would put an end to her misery had their handcuffs out before she even knew what was happening. They wouldn’t let her make a phone call: she wanted to talk to someone, her mum at least. “Your mum can’t help you now,” one of the policemen said. “At that moment, I felt anything could happen,” Sarah-Jane remembers. “They were holding me hostage over a €2.10 underground ticket. What was going to happen next?” It would be another couple of hours before the consequences of Sarah-Jane’s fateful U-Bahn ride would be over, hours that made her anxious for months to come – “traumatized,” as she says today.

The Polizei: friend or foe?

Sarah-Jane’s story doesn’t fit with the average German’s image of the police. In this country, the police are an authority that is trusted to the point that citizens don’t mind involving them in their daily lives. People don’t hesitate to call 110 for petty annoyances – like if the neighbours are playing music too loud or someone’s parked on a pedestrian crossing.

They are “dein Freund und Helfer” – there to help. But statistics and human rights organisations speak of another reality: in the last year alone, 1698 criminal proceedings against Berlin policemen were opened, but 1464 ended with a dismissal of the charges. Only 30 police officers, less than two percent of all cases, were convicted. You get an even more alarming picture if you just look at the cases of assault (Körperverletzung im Amt): out of 718 charges in 2009, only two ended with a guilty verdict – less than one percent. The year before, there wasn’t a single conviction for assault, despite the fact that 636 cases were filed.

Human rights organisations view these numbers with concern. “It seems that there is a huge deficiency within the system when it comes to dealing with the misconduct of police officers,” says Sven Lüders, spokesman of the Humanistische Union. “And there is a blatant lack of transparency about why there are no convictions.” Amnesty International, with whom the Humanistische Union works closely, has been demanding for years that the German police monitor cases of police abuse and disclose more details. But so far, there is still no standard and in many federal states, there aren’t even statistics about police violence as there are at least for Berlin. Even the UN Human Rights Committee officially criticized Germany recently for not publishing comprehensive statistics on police misconduct.

Caught red-handed

So police violence remains a huge grey zone unless a particular case draws public attention to it, like the one that most recently appalled Berliners. This year, on May 1, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary May Day demo, there was suddenly something in the air…

Hundreds of policemen in riot gear stand in front of a crowd of young demonstrators, their faces masked with scarves and black sunglasses, hoods pulled over their heads. Everyone is waiting for the first bottle to fly. And then, all of a sudden, everyone starts running: the scene descends into chaos. At Spreewaldplatz, a young man stumbles while running away from a group of police officers. A policeman jumps over him; a policeman stops and gives him a whole-hearted kick in the head.

The scene was caught on video, made it to YouTube almost immediately, and has since been watched hundreds of thousands of times. The Landeskriminalamt (State Bureau of Investigation) started investigating the next day, and the policeman turned herself in under the pressure. An unofficial source within the police told EXBERLINER that the officer was on probation and will most likely now lose his job.

When Sarah-Jane got handcuffed, there weren’t hundreds of thousands of viewers, but quite a few people did finally get a glimpse of the absurd situation when she entered Stattbad Wedding: a young woman shocked and distraught with fear, escorted by two policemen, handcuffs on her wrists! She had finally managed to convince them to drive her there to find her friend, who had the key to the apartment where her passport was. As a small crowd of friends and visitors circled them in total incomprehension, the police officers’ attitude to Sarah-Jane finally changed. The nightmare ended an hour later – a trip to the toilet with one hand in handcuffs included – after Sarah-Jane finally managed to produce the requested passport. She didn’t issue an official complaint against the policemen: “I just wanted to forget the whole thing as soon as possible.”

Forgetting about it as soon as possible: that’s how many victims of police abuse respond. Not Nadja. A mother of a 7-year-old and magazine editor who’s been living and working in Berlin for eight years, she made sure not to leave the police station she was forcibly brought to without asking for the identification of the two officers who mistreated her (see “Testimony 2: Nadja”).

“A lost cause”

There, despite her emotions and the two cops’ intimidating presence, she made a point of asking for the officers’ Dienstnummern (ID number). “I wasn’t really sure what for, but I felt I should…” To her surprise, she was given the numbers without any difficulty – almost with a shrug. “As if they knew nothing could happen to them,” Nadja recalls. “The woman was especially brash. You have to imagine the scene: we are in the middle of the police station with many officers around… and she made a point of writing out her full name – she didn’t have to – with a display of casualness that was supposed to speak in favour of her total innocence. He, on the other hand, was still acting like a bully, all red-faced and nasty-looking, and threw a card with a printed number at me. They were grinning the whole time.”

Nadja was left badly shaken but proud she, at least, had acquired the identity of her assailants. Not for long. When she phoned several lawyers the next day, they all dissuaded her from attempting any legal action. “Dienstnummern or not, they told me it was a lost cause.” The statistics are there to support their pessimism.

When charging backfires

“In Berlin especially, you get the feeling that the police enjoys total impunity,” says Martina Arndt. Arndt is a defence lawyer with a lot of experience in cases of police violence, the most famous of which was the case of Alexandra R., a 21-year-old who was arrested for arson – she allegedly attempted to set fire to a car in Friedrichshain – and held in police custody for five months without any evidence. Defence lawyers like Arndt, who actually try to take cases of police violence to court, are not so easy to find; the Verein Rote Hilfe, an organization that provides left-wing activists with legal help, keeps her name in its address book. Still, to date she has only had six clients who have actually dared to press charges, and only one case actually made it to court: the others were dismissed.

But Arndt often finds herself convincing clients not to file charges. She knows too well that it’s the same story time and again. The young woman she recently defended faced an all-to-common experience: after filing a complaint about being punched in the face by a policeman during a demonstration, the girl was herself charged for allegedly kicking the policeman first. “There’s always the risk of the whole thing backfiring and the victims ending up with proceedings against them,” Arndt says.

“A climate of impunity”

Amnesty International’s findings support Arndt’s experiences: “There’s a climate of impunity,” concludes a upcoming report by the human rights association. “It starts with the investigation not fulfilling human rights standards,” says its police expert Katharina Spiess. Having examined a number of cases across Germany, AI found that investigations are especially slow in cases of police violence. It even found cases where the same policeman who was charged also investigated the case. According to AI, it would help if Germany finally passed a law on Kennzeichnungspflicht (mandatory identification), which would require police officers to display their name or an ID number on their uniform. “Our research has shown that many investigations come to a halt because you can’t identify the officer at fault,” Spiess says.

But even if Kennzeichnungspflicht finally comes about (so far, the police union has blocked it by arguing that it would just lead to an increase in arbitrary charges and cases of revenge), something besides identification makes it difficult to take cases of police violence to court: Sven Lüders of Humanistische Union calls this the “Mauer des Schweigens” or “wall of silence”. Police, he says, rarely testify against one another – for obvious reasons. There is still a huge amount of Korpsgeist (esprit de corps) in the German police: reporting a colleague could prompt mobbing and discrimination. The Humanistische Union has therefore been fighting for an independent police evaluator for years – someone who could be a neutral contact person for police officers who witness the misconduct of colleagues. The HU is working on getting it into the Berlin government and ultimately enforced by law.

Tit-for-tat response

When cases of police violence make it to court, it’s almost always the same game, Arndt says. “Police officers are just considered better witnesses. Judges very rarely doubt the word of a policeman.” On top of that, the police are specially trained in court procedures: on how to give correct, convincing testimony and so on. Arndt also believes that police testimonies are often rehearsed. “You can tell from the words being used in their statements,” she says. But it’s difficult to prove, and too many judges are not really interested.

When reached by EXBERLINER, Martin Steltner, spokesman for the Berlin public prosecutor’s office, dismissed Arndt’s criticism. “We investigate cases of police violence as thoroughly as any other crime,” he says. And when asked why not a single one of the 600 cases of assault filed against police officers in 2008 ended in a conviction, he counters by explaining that the statistics don’t say how many of these charges are acts of revenge by criminals wanting to take a swipe at the police. “According to evaluations made by the police, the majority of the charges are tit-for-tat-responses.” Still, only the opinion of independent experts would make this claim really believable. And the stats don’t account for the

many, many cases in which victims are dissuaded from filing charges in the first place. “First, you don’t know who to turn to,” says Nadja. “Many lawyers are not interested, or else are… in the wrong way: ‘How much are you ready to spend on this?’ asked the first one I talked to! And even if you can afford a lawyer, most will discourage you from attempting anything. The sad truth is it’s much easier to forget all about it, and move on as if nothing happened.”

Sarah-Jane never heard back from the police, nor did she get a letter from the BVG. But she will never forget that day when she was handcuffed the first time in her life – in Berlin, Germany.