“A systematic problem”: police violence often remains without consequences

More and more cases are multiplying in which police officers are accused of having used disproportionate force. However, convictions are rare. Experts attribute this to the weaknesses of the investigative authorities. to the right?

A man died on Monday during a police check in Mannheim. A video meant to show the incident spread quickly on social media and sparked massive criticism of the actions of the rescue services. Because you can see how one of the officers repeatedly hits the head of a man lying on the ground, his face is covered in blood soon after. The two officers involved are suspended from duty and are being investigated for bodily harm in the line of duty resulting in death. According to the LKA, traces of “low intensity” blunt force were found on the man’s body. The deceased allegedly suffered from heart failure.

LKA Baden-Württemberg president Andreas Stenger stressed that one should not be fooled by individual video footage. Nevertheless, Mannheim police chief Siegfried Kollmar assumes that the case will cost a lot of confidence in his authority. “It will take us a few weeks and a few months to regain confidence,” Kollmar says. “Our efforts had a crack.”

In principle, the police have the support of the population. An ntv survey from last December showed around 80% of respondents have a high level of trust in police officers – the figure is only higher for doctors. However, there are always cases where the emergency services are accused of excessive or disproportionate actions. As is currently the case in Mannheim, these become public debates mainly through videos circulating on the Internet.

About two weeks ago, statements by UN human rights expert Nils Melzer caused a stir. He also referred to records of police operations during corona protests when he attested to a “system failure” in Germany in the face of police violence. “Police surveillance does not work in Germany,” was Melzer’s harsh verdict. What is that?

“Sometimes the limits are crossed”

The police have the social monopoly of violence. A bet is authorized as a last resort and according to the principle of proportionality. “But at the same time you accept the problem that the use of force does not always occur within the framework of legal powers, but that the limits are sometimes exceeded”, explains Tobias Singelnstein in an interview with ntv.de.

The problem is much more serious in other countries. But even in Germany, “it’s no coincidence that individual officers go too far; it has to do with the way the police work,” says the criminal law professor at Goethe University in Frankfurt. hand. “Unlawful police violence is a structural problem,” he concludes.

According to Singelnstein, major events such as political demonstrations or professional football matches play a particularly important role. “But we see that unlawful police violence can occur in virtually any operational situation. Identity checks, house searches, arrests – the whole spectrum.”

If the use of force by police officers exceeds the level permitted by law, the criminal offense of causing bodily harm in the performance of their duties is fulfilled. According to official statistics, about 4,000 police officers are investigated each year, and nearly half of the cases involve unlawful police brutality.

Study criticizes high number of unreported cases

In 2019, a large-scale Ruhr-Uni Bochum study, led by Singelnstein, looked at 3,400 cases of alleged police brutality in Germany. Result: the number of undeclared cases is about five times greater than the cases recorded annually in the statistics. This means that for every suspected case, there are at least five that go unreported. “People feel like they have no chance in court,” says Singelnstein. “A lot of people think the evidence is too bad, you can’t identify the police at all, or they feel like you don’t stand a chance against the police anyway.”

In fact, the chances of success after an announcement are slim. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the majority of prosecutions against police officers are dropped, with only 57 criminal cases brought in 4,200 investigations in 2019. 2020 was alike. Convictions are even rarer. According to the findings of researchers from the Ruhr-Uni Bochum, there were only seven in 2019.

A circumstance that the UN expert Melzer also strongly criticized. He asked the federal government for statistics on the number of police officers prosecuted for disproportionate violence. The answer: in two years it was only one, and in several federal states there are no statistics. While demonstrators are sometimes sentenced in summary proceedings, prosecutions against police officers are stopped or delayed “until no one is watching”, explains Melzer.

Asked by ntv.de, the federal president of the police union (GdP), Oliver Malchow, replied that the allegations against officials were often simply unfounded. “Especially in the case of reports of alleged disproportionate use of force by police officers, it often turns out that the officer acted within the scope of what was authorized,” says Malchow.

“Colleagues Investigate Colleagues”

For the criminal lawyer Sinelnstein, on the other hand, other reasons are decisive. There is a strong cultural cohesion in the police, which has an impact on investigations. “Colleagues are investigating against colleagues.” The prosecution, which decides in the last resort, must work with what the police deliver.

In addition, evidence in investigations against police officers is generally difficult. Videos as snapshots are often of only limited significance, much more often in such proceedings there are statements against statements. “It is true that the police are relatively high in the hierarchy of credibility of justice. Justice then tends to perceive the police as neutral witnesses and therefore considers them particularly credible”, explains Singelnstein. Third point: the prosecution works closely with the police and is even dependent on them. “I think prosecutors often have a special understanding of police officers as suspects.”

Allegations that the police have firmly denied. GdP Chairman Malchow stresses to ntv.de that the police are not above the law. Investigations against police officers would be treated “like any other case”. There are additional preventative measures within the police force, such as advanced training seminars and communication training. Supervisors are also sensitized. “In real-world operations, the use of body cameras can also help identify misconduct or refute allegations,” Malchow says.

Sinelnstein, on the other hand, considers the use of such body cameras to be of little use. “In the USA they work, in Germany it does not work for data protection reasons.” Emergency services are responsible for deciding when the camera is on – a dilemma. “It stands to reason that police officers activate the body camera mainly in situations where it is useful to them and deactivate it in situations where it can harm them.”

Independent complaints bodies are created

The lawyer and criminologist pleads instead for independent complaint bodies to which the persons concerned can turn. Human rights organizations have been calling for this for Germany for years. In some federal states, there are already mediators and police officers who also deal with cases of unlawful police violence. Their main task: to investigate the allegations independently, for example by interviewing witnesses.

The powers vary depending on the federal state, in Berlin they should go the furthest in the future. The corresponding draft law for the planned body even provides for direct access to the police, for example in the form of consultation of files or access to police premises. Unlike other European countries such as Denmark or Britain, where such complaints offices have been common practice for years, German bodies have relatively few resources, according to an analysis by the German Institute for Human Rights. of man.

The GoP rejects the introduction of independent complaints offices. “The demand for such a position resonates with a fundamental distrust of the police and the judiciary,” Malchow says. “Of course, we collaborate with the complaints offices that have already been set up or the police officers that have been deployed and we exchange ideas.

Singelnstein, on the other hand, sees the possibility of creating a “structural balance” in the introduction of independent complaints offices. “The problem will not be completely solved. But of course something has to be done to keep illegal police violence as low as possible.”

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