From Malin Tayert
This is a translated version.
Racism in the police is a very common problem. But where does it actually come from? And what is being done about it? A former policeman gives an insight into his earlier everyday life.
“This is my country and you are only a guest here,” a policeman shouts at a woman while his colleague forcibly pushes her husband to the ground. Secretly filmed, this video appeared on social media in mid-September. It shows two Berlin police officers arresting a man in his flat. This man, having a migration background, was presumed for driving evasion. In front of his children, the police officers become abusive and increasingly make racist and discriminatory comments towards the family. Such scenes of racist remarks and hate speech towards PoC are increasingly associated with the German police.
Some police officers speak out publicly against this kind of discrimination. One of them is the former police officer Sebastian Friedrich, who reported in a ntv interview in summer of 2022 that racist remarks by colleagues were part of the daily routine. Such behaviour is said to have rarely had consequences. According to a taz report – a German daily paper – the Berlin officer from the video mentioned was transferred by the police leadership to internal service. Investigations are still underway against both sides. Although such cases of obvious racism are increasingly brought to the forefront of public attention, little change is noticeable.
In an interview with ARD in 2020, former Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said that the German police have “no structural problem”. By this he means “structural racism”, which the police are repeatedly accused of. In fact, the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency defines “structural racism” as racism that cannot be traced back to individual institutions, such as the police. The more accurate term, according to the federal agency, would therefore be “institutional racism”, which is limited to the “forms of discrimination, exclusion or devaluation emanating from the institutions of a society […]”. Here it is emphasised that the starting point is not the prejudices or derogatory attitudes of an individual, but rather “the interpretation [and] application of rules, regulations, norms, routines” of an institution. Much more interesting than the question of definition are the origins of the issue of racism in the police.
A former police officer of the police headquarters in Freiburg, who is now called Ben for data protection reasons, reports on his apprenticeship. He says that due to a recruitment offensive, almost everyone is taken on by the police. This can also have positive consequences. To his astonishment for example, his training class was particularly diverse: “About 30 to 40 % had a migration background”. On the negative side, however, Ben sees that the quality of the applicants is sometimes extremely low as a result. “I have the feeling that basic democratic values were not necessarily present in all of them. Even if it was only a small part, I was surprised that they made it into the police force at all.” A criminal inspector from the BKA Berlin (Federal Criminal Police Office of Berlin), who also wishes to remain anonymous in this context, replies in the interview that a whole section of the recruitment process revolves around basic values and moral attitudes. But this was only introduced about two years ago. She says: “In the end, of course, it’s always just a basic impression, but if a person is totally right-wing extremist, of course I hope it will be noticed in the selection process.” The university for police in Baden-Württemberg explains that they do not publish the contents of aptitude tests for reasons of equal treatment of all participants.
In a 2020 WDR documentary “Polizeigewalt und Rassismus – Wer kontrolliert die Polizei?” (Police violence and racism – who controls the police?) by Christina Zühlke and Jan Keuchel, police researcher Kai Seidensticker says that prejudices can also arise from police work itself. “Police work usually takes place in socially weaker areas.“ Police officers who work in these areas for a long time often have a very strong black-and-white thinking. Ex-police officer Ben says that he also noticed how his own attitude changed during his one-year internship. “You come in as a young person, you have to deal with 90% of people who have a migration background on patrol. You are spat on, kicked and your female colleagues are ignored because they are women. All these experiences just didn’t happen with German citizens.” However, this cannot justify misanthropic statements. According to the BKA criminal inspector, a zero-tolerance line is followed in the police force and it is also strictly enforced. “People who are still in training and behave in a right-wing extremist way are consistently dismissed.”
Ben, in his own words, also sees it “in a very different way” these days. In his opinion, the fault lies mainly with supervisors, because they have not consistently taken action. “If someone uses abusive words in certain areas, I expect my supervisor to intervene and not to reinforce such statements and thereby further reinforce stereotypes.” He points that supervisors should be better trained in this regard so that there really is a zero tolerance. “This would muzzle that 20% and such views could not be propagated in the first place.” He is also critical of the fact that there is virtually no independent complaints body within the police. There would be a psychosocial service to which people could turn to with their own crises and concerns, but this would often be staffed by internal employees. “The thing is that the police is like a small family. If I know that Susanne, for example, is the head of the psychosocial service and I report there, then I have to trust that nothing will leak out. But since Susanne did her apprenticeship with Max, Paul and Hans back 20 years ago, you can never be sure if there might not be some chatter.”
A colleague who reports other colleagues to the internal counselling centres because they have made racist comments, for example, is often considered to be a “traitor”. According to Ben, as a “traitor” one always has to fear that an internal report is unofficially linked to the end of one’s career. He explains: “Whether your report was legitimate or not, many are afraid to work with you afterwards because they can’t be sure that if they make a small mistake you won’t report them.” According to the crime inspector, it is perfectly normal that such reports cannot remain anonymous. “After all, an accused person or the person against whom the internal proceedings are being conducted always has the right to inspect the files through his lawyer.” For her it’s difficult to have a separate unit that was only concerned with ensuring that such reports remained secret. In her opinion, it is not the person who makes the report who is the “traitor”, but the person who violates police principles. Whether theory and practice differ here is questionable. Ben says that from his experience there are simply too few moments when racist and extremist statements are actively stopped.
So what options are there at all to actively curb racism in the police? “The best strategy is definitely to advertise diversity,” says the crime inspector. If the police actively recruit people with a migration background, then a working environment is created that is less tainted with prejudices and stereotypes. She herself says: “I never had the feeling that right-wing extremism was a problem in the BKA. Many of my colleagues have a migration background and that is completely normal and accepted here.” She also says that it is important to make one’s own opinion clear. If you make it clear that right-wing extremism and racism are not wanted in the police force, then people with such ideas will not apply. In the WDR documentary, Kai Seidensticker agrees by principle. However, he criticises the lack of recognition that these cases are not just individual ones, but that the construction of police work itself is a good structural breeding ground for such ideas. He suggests that the negative everyday experiences should also be dealt with and critically reflected upon during training and throughout the entire period of service through political education. Ben, too, would have liked such education as a young police officer. “You would need a person, a superior, to make it clear to you: guys, it’s hell out there, but remember, we’re only dealing with a small percentage of society. And that is the same everywhere in all countries. Because who usually has the worst chances? Someone who is not from the country.”
Many victims of police racism have lost confidence in the police as a judicial body. They complain about too little control of the police as an institution and about legal procedures that usually bring no consequences. The BKA crime inspector explains that when there is an allegation of racism or other violations, an internal audit usually becomes active. “If civil servants violate the penal code, the local police investigate first. But also within the authority itself, internal audits are carried out to determine whether disciplinary law has been violated. If criminal charges are brought, the results of the investigation are then passed on to the public prosecutor’s office.” Many take a critical view of this procedure, including Ben: “It can’t be possible that the Offenburg police station is conducting an investigation against two police officers from Freiburg. That’s just an email away.” He believes that there should be an independent control body for the police in Germany. This body could then present its independent investigation results to the public prosecutor’s office and the court. “This would also preserve the separation of powers.” An employee of the German Institute for Human Rights, Eric Töpfer, reports in the course of the WDR documentary that something like this already exists in several countries. For example, in Denmark and Great Britain, where such agencies can handle complaints against police officers as well as conduct criminal investigations against them. Such disempowerment of the police force through external controls could, in turn, also regain public trust in the police itself. Police personnel could also be relieved physically and psychologically, as they would no longer have to conduct investigations against their own ranks, according to the WDR documentary.
For the future, Ben would like to see reporting on the police go both ways and not just try to confirm clichés and prejudices. Most police officers are highly motivated and do a great job. Especially the younger generation, which is usually much more enlightened, gives him hope. Nevertheless, it should be noted that an institutional racism problem of the police, according to the definition, cannot be traced back to individual cases and individual views. In the end, the police as an institution in its current structure offers a lot of space for racist and discriminatory views. This is where further reforming practices need to start in order to create a basis that leaves no room for such ideas.