Stretched to the Limit: Has the German State Lost Control?
After the violent excesses in Cologne on New Year's Eve, German government failures have come to light, with many asking if the country is still safe. Police and the justice system have been stretched to their limits. New laws won't fix the problem, but extra personnel could. By SPIEGEL Staff
Of course Tunisia could take back a few Tunisians. Germany would like to repatriate about 1,200 of the country's nationals, but the problems start with the fact that the Tunisian Embassy in Berlin isn't interested, has no time or has other reasons for why "establishing contact with the embassy" has been "extremely difficult," as an official German government document reads.
Or Algeria. The Algerians have actually nothing against German inquiries as to whether they can send home one of the more than 2,000 Algerians who have been deemed subject to immediate deportation. But the reality is more complicated. Sometimes there are legal issues, sometimes humanitarian concerns and sometimes there are reasons that are impenetrable. In the end, only 24 were sent home.
Has the German State Given Up?
Currently, several thousand people from the Maghreb region are slated for deportation from Germany, but they haven't had to leave because the state, in many respects, has become powerless to act. Not so long ago, it was just a figure that prompted shoulder-shrugging at most. That's how it is, it can't be changed, we have to live with it. But after the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, the numbers listed in the internal paper, which was compiled by German state governments, have a new significance. The impotence has remained, but the time for shrugging shoulders has passed. The state stands disgraced and trust is vanishing -- and not just when it comes to deportations, but when it comes to everything that a state actually stands for: internal security. Has the German state given up?
There are financial reasons for the shortcoming: For decades, Germany has skimped on its civil service and cut budgets wherever possible. Now Berlin is paying the price. But the causes go much deeper than that, touching on the fundamental relationship between the German state and those who have recently arrived. In Germany, a 66-year-old democracy, the police have positioned themselves as "friends and helpers," but it is a promise that young men from North Africa don't immediately understand.
It is the clash of two cultures: A constitutional state that emphasizes de-escalation, integration and the empathetic re-socialization of young offenders; and immigrants from authoritarian societies who misunderstand the approach and take advantage of the fact that they, even if they break the law, are neither deported nor toughly punished.
The consequence is that, in some places, law and order is restricted, or doesn't exist at all. Like in Cologne on New Year's Eve. Or in troubled city quarters in Frankfurt and Berlin during the entire year.
The state has accepted its own impotence, and it was perhaps possible to accept so long as tens of thousands of asylum-seekers weren't entering the country every year. But now Germany is facing an enormous task: that of absorbing and integrating hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees. It is a challenge that can only be met if Germany once again begins to consistently enforce its rules.
A good place to start, particularly given the dark events in Cologne, is with the police. How is it possible that the square in front of the train station could morph into a zone of lawlessness? Why was the state not present on that New Year's Eve night? Was there a lack of police? Where they overwhelmed by the mob?
By Thursday of last week, some 650 criminal complaints stemming from New Year's Eve had been filed in Cologne, half of them for sexual assault, three of them for alleged rapes. In 103 cases, sexual assault and theft were combined.
Two weeks after the attacks, victims were still coming forward, most of them women, even if they are fully aware that their purses and mobile phones will most likely never be recovered. And that the men who sexually harassed or assaulted them will never be identified.
By late last week, state prosecutors had only identified 13 suspects: eight Moroccans, four Algerians and a Tunisian. Five of them are in pre-trial detention, accused of theft, receiving stolen goods and resisting arrest. Nobody by last Thursday had yet been detained for sexual assault. Some of the victims have told police they would be able to identify their assailant, but many others have said they could not.
The four public prosecutors and the additional 135 investigators belonging to the special investigations unit assembled to look into the New Year's crimes are doing what they can to collect evidence. Officials have collected underwear from many of the victims in the hope of finding DNA from the perpetrators, from sweat on their fingers, for example. Police are also hoping for leads acquaintances of the assailants. They have announced a reward of 10,000 for information leading to the culprits.
As one of the detective says, they are looking for "a mass of perpetrators" -- which means they will have to sift through a massive amount of data. That includes analyzing, with the help of software, more than 300 hours of footage from CCTV cameras mounted in, on and around the train station. One of their main discoveries so far, though, has been the fact that most of the cameras in the station don't work and that the others are outdated. An equipment renewal is scheduled for 2018.
Officials have also called on witnesses to upload videos from New Year's Eve to their website for analysis. But it seems unlikely that footage from the middle of a crowd on a dark night with bright fireworks going off will be much help.
What is slowly becoming clear, however, is why police failed to provide adequate security that night on the square between the main station and the Cologne Cathedral. Ralf Jäger, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state in which Cologne is located, believes much of the blame lies with the city's police department. He says officers failed to "call for badly needed backup" in time. They didn't even take advantage of backup that had been made available.
But they were spread out across the state. One unit was in Aachen, which is located 70 kilometers (45 miles) west of Cologne, a second was in Gelsenkirchen (100 kilometers) and a third was in Wuppertal (50 kilometers). The officers would have needed an hour just to assemble at headquarters and another hour to get to the Cologne train station.
Not surprisingly, the police report from Cologne sounds rather different than the one from the NRW Interior Ministry. The police commander "elected not to call for backup because, due to the time lag until they would be available on site, he did not view it as constructive." Experienced officers also said that even calling for help from neighboring police forces would have taken too long.
"An impression developed that the state had lost the ability to take action for a few hours," North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Hannelore Kraft has admitted.
Unprepared for Terror?
For just a few hours? Only in Cologne? Those who work for the federal and state police forces are hardly surprised by the development. Largely unnoticed by the populace at large, German policymakers have spent the past few years reducing the size of the police forces while at the same time inundating them with new responsibilities. "It was bound to happen sooner or later," says a police union official about the New Year's attacks. At some point, he continues, there is a price to pay when police forces have to spend just as much effort going after their budget-cutting goals as they do going after criminals.
According to GdP, one of two competing police unions in Germany, there were 237,198 state police officers in 2000, but today there are 10,000 fewer. Furthermore, all German states are faced with a mountain of overtime racked up by their officers -- some 18 million hours nationwide.
And it's not just police personnel that have been overworked. Equipment too is well beyond its wear limit, in many cases to the point that it has become dangerous. A classified Federal Interior Ministry report from Jan. 19, 2015 notes that German police would be unable to adequately protect themselves from gunfire from a Kalashnikov, the favored weapon of terrorists worldwide -- even in their response vehicles.
The report, completed shortly after the attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, notes that the "existing protective equipment (special vehicles and protective vests)" available to state crisis response units "does not offer any protection against firearms of the type Kalashnikov, which were used by the attackers in Paris."
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has frequently said that it is only a matter of time before a terror attack is committed on German soil. Yet the federal police force his ministry is in charge of is likewise inadequately equipped. "With their current equipment," police officials admitted last summer, federal police emergency response units are "only partially deployable in tough situations."
It is only when something actually happens that the fear of failure becomes great enough and action is taken. Once public attention wanes again, though, cuts and shortcuts continue as before. And hardly anyone cares.
Internal federal police documents clearly show what the back-and-forth looks like. In December 2012, the terror situation seemed relatively calm, as did that along the German-Austrian border. The Interior Ministry reported to German parliament that, "since 2008, the number of officers has been reduced by 1,066, with 511 of those being prison officers." The period of increasing the security forces in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US had passed and it was time to reduce the force.
But 2008 was also the year when Germany's federal police force was given a large new task. They took over control of Bavaria's southern border, with some 800 officers assigned to the duty. Prior to 2008, the Bavarian state police had controlled the border. Despite the new duties, the federal police force was not increased by a single officer.
Just a few years later, Federal Police Chief Dieter Romann applied for 3,000 new positions to be added to the 2013 budget. His request was not acted upon. In 2014, he again received nothing. Only in 2015 were new positions added to the force: 200 of them. But they were earmarked for the next new task assigned to the federal police force: that of guarding the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, in Frankfurt. And that is how the situation remained until the middle of 2015: the Interior Ministry continued to be stingy even as the refugee numbers had shot up and Islamists had staged the first attack in Paris.
The federal budget ultimately approved the additional 3,000 positions that have been requested for years and included them in the 2016 budget -- 1,000 per year until 2019. But the first new officers will only join their units in 2019, after training.
'Total Failure of State Power'
The consequences of the years of belt-tightening can now be observed on the Bavarian border, where during the summer and fall, the federal police took on a number of new refugee-related tasks that have little to do with actual policing: distributing meals, assembling groups for bus transfers, and organizing transportation to identification centers and initial reception facilities.
This winter, the situation has improved only on the surface. "What is happening down here in Passau is insane," says a frustrated federal police officer, saying it reminds him of a never-ending Ping-Pong game. Austria sends refugees to Bavaria and then, in a more recent development, Germany sends many of them back to Austria -- those with no papers or those who don't want to remain in Germany but want to continue onward to Sweden, for example. Not 24 hours later, the same people are back in Passau, essentially becoming the victims of a power struggle between Austria and Germany. "It's a total failure of state power," says one of the police officers.
The federal police are required to report each case indicating that the person in question crossed the border illegally -- even if the offender crossed the border on a state-chartered bus. Some 1,000 such reports have thus far been filed. It is little more than bureaucratic waste, sent along to the appropriate public prosecutors office so that the case can then be immediately thrown out.
The trail of overwork and fatigue leads across the entire country, from the federal police on the border to the state prosecutors and the officials in each German state. None of them were even remotely prepared for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees. State bureaucrats, who had spent their days writing regulations pertaining to the correct number of bicycle racks for newly built residential housing where suddenly being asked to improvise and find shelter for 1,000 newly arrived refugees per week. At the same time, others were tasked with guaranteeing public safety.
Not surprisingly, they were not always successful -- and trust in the state began to erode ever more rapidly.
The city of Braunschweig provides a telling example. At times last year, more than 4,000 people were housed at a former barracks at the edge of town, many of them in the buildings but also in tents and containers outside. As the number of newcomers to the initial reception facility rose, so too did the number of crimes committed nearby. Much of it was petty theft, but there were also break-ins, fights and different forms of harassment -- and locals were unsettled. Still, there were very few convictions. The reason was that summons to police or judicial interrogations could not be delivered because suspects had long-since disappeared or registered elsewhere under a different name. "They laugh at us because nothing happens to them," says one detective.
In August 2015, the Braunschweig police department became the first in the country to establish a special unit for the express purpose of investigating crimes committed by refugees. Police Chief Cordula Müller made the decision to begin locking up suspects in pre-trial detention for a week even for minor crimes. "Criminals have to understand that Germany has laws that they must obey," she says. It worked because the judiciary in Braunschweig went along with the plan. Accelerated hearings have become just as important as rapid investigations and cases are now heard immediately instead of months later.
Since it was founded, the special unit has dealt with around 1,300 cases. One of the detectives recalls a judge delivering a clear message during one of the very first hearings. "You are bringing other asylum-seekers into disrepute," he told the defendant. It is the kind of thing that Cordula Müller likes to hear. "We don't have a problem with refugees. We have a problem with criminals," she says.
In the public debate, that kind of nuance was not always easy to find in recent months. Initially, newcomers were welcomed with flowers and applause at Munich's central train station. Not long later, they were pitied as victims of right-wing rhetoric and violence. More recently, though, the discussion has focused on limits. And since New Year's, even the federal justice minister has spoken of "uninhibited hordes" and a "temporary break with civilization."
But as fast as opinions have changed, the state and its institutions have reacted at a snail's pace. Its loss of control is a gradual process, and much more difficult to observe.
That can also be seen in the question as to how the flow of refugees should be registered and distributed. The numbers reported by the federal government sound precise and consistent with German thoroughness. In truth, though, they are at best extremely approximate. Last year, up to 10,000 newcomers each day had to be sheltered and fed. It is understandable that officials were overwhelmed. But the lack of accurate statistics is also the product of the fact that almost every German state has its own solution when it comes to registering and distributing new arrivals.
A national registration system does exist called "Easy." It says that a total of 1,091,894 asylum-seekers entered the country in 2015, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) reported two weeks ago. But that doesn't necessarily mean that close to 1.1 million refugees have actually entered Germany. Experts believe the real figure could be tens, or even hundreds of thousands, lower because it is easy for registrations to be duplicated within the system.
"Easy" is the German abbreviation for Primary Distribution of Asylum-Seekers and it was designed exclusively to help spread the refugees out among the 16 federal states according to quotas set by the German government. New arrivals don't even have to provide a name under the system. They only have to state their country of origin and their familial connection to other refugees.
Many new arrivals are simply waved into Germany by border officials without even taking any personal data. It often takes days after they enter into the country before they first come into contact with "Easy," often in a refugee camp. In some cases, asylum-seekers are given temporary ID cards for the camps that include the name they provided. In others, they are just given colored wristbands that give them access to food and services.
In many places, refugees simply disappear soon after arrival, without anyone knowing where they've gone. The operators of some asylum-seeker camps, like one in the state of Hesse outside of Frankfurt, report a disappearance rate among refugees as high as 50 percent within the first two days after arrival.
The states are attempting to limit these fluctuations by taking steps to personally register refugees at an earlier stage. But even that isn't helping much because it is being conducted according to disparate standards and using different software programs. For example, some states are taking fingerprints, but others are not. Generally, an automated exchange of data between the states is not currently possible, and neither is it possible to match data up with that of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), with the national asylum-seeker register maintained by the federal refugee office BAMF or the Europe-wide Eurodac refugee database.
Opportunities for Fraud
Those determined to do so, can thus secure duplicate social benefits, such as the 143 a month in pocket money, from the government without getting caught simply by registering in different states using either the same or different names. During each registration, the authorities issue a "Certificate of Registration as an Asylum-Seeker." The simple paper is intended to serve as a kind of emergency identity card for the refugees, a temporary solution until they are able to get an appointment with BAMF to submit their official asylum application. Right now, it often takes months for that to happen.
Given the chaotic procedures that are currently in place, criminals can simply secure official papers for multiple identities. The suspected Islamist from an asylum-seekers' hostel in Recklinghausen, Germany, who attacked police in Paris with an axe at the beginning of January on the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack is believed to have registered with the authorities using at least seven different names.
An investigation by the BKA also found that the man had applied for asylum in Switzerland and Romania. Europe's Eurodac fingerprint database is intended to prevent this kind of situation. "We need to review whether the system failed," says one official.
Officials have been aware of the registration problems for some time now, but the federal government didn't present a draft law that would require all refugees to be fingerprinted and photographed in a nationwide system until December. Once they have been registered, they are to be provided with a unified "proof of arrival" ID that is standardized and at least halfway unforgeable. The system is supposed to go into place in mid-February, but it will still take some time before it is implemented at all the initial reception centers in the individual states. Interior Minister de Maizière says he is hopeful it can be completed by mid-2016.
But even more difficult than registering new refugees is the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers or immigrant criminal offenders. Even as the government has announced its intention to make such deportations easier, the situation is unlikely to change much. For years, German officials have been complaining about 28 "problem countries" that continually refuse to allow the return of their citizens facing deportation from Germany despite their obligation to do so under international law. They include the Maghreb states like Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which have shown little willingness to cooperate, especially in cases where those slated for deportation are known criminals.
When German authorities, for example, notify the Moroccan Embassy about a candidate for deportation, officials say they often get answers like, "We can't find that person in our database." Or they will point to alleged humanitarian reasons for making the return trip unacceptable. One German government document states that around 5,500 Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians were "subject to deportation" as of the end of July, but officials only managed to deport 53 nationals from those countries during the first half of 2015.
In recent months, officials in Berlin have complained repeatedly to officials in the Maghreb countries. In a joint letter, de Maizière and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), recently demanded greater cooperation from their counterparts in those countries when it comes to repatriation. As of last week, they still hadn't received a response. The German government has so far avoided acting on the threat of cutting development aid to the countries if they don't cooperate, but the warnings are there. Over the weekend, deputy chancellor and SPD boss Sigmar Gabriel admonished the Maghreb states and threatened that future funding may be tied to cooperation on deportations.
The consequences of not being able to deport have become apparent in places like Cologne. Or in the state of Saxony. An Interior Ministry report from the end of 2015 notes that a quarter of all foreigners suspected of committing crimes in the state were Tunisians, despite the fact that they comprise only 4 percent of all immigrants in the state. So far, authorities haven only succeeded in deporting very few. After months of pressure, the Tunisian Embassy recently sent the German government a list of 170 nationals the country would possibly be willing to take back -- a token gesture of goodwill.
Still, it is anything but certain that the 170 Tunisians will actually leave Germany. For years, the German government permitted a situation in which those who behaved the most brazenly were able to prevent their deportation. Those who concealed their true identity, went underground at the right moment, got a doctor's note saying they were incapable of flying or caused such a ruckus in the deportation aircraft that the pilot refused to take off, often succeeded in staying in Germany.
Little Respect for Justice
Indeed, these individuals have felt very little of the "heavy hand of the law" now being called for by German politicians, Chancellor Merkel first and foremost. The same applies to young offenders facing the justice system for the first time.
Michael Brennecke has been a public defender in the town of Achim in Lower Saxony for almost 30 years. Based on his experience with numerous cases, he believes that educational measures applied by juvenile courts against young immigrant pickpockets seldom have much impact. He says people who come from countries where conviction for theft means getting your hand cut off "have a totally different understanding of our legal system -- they don't take our sentences seriously."
Brennecke often represents delinquent refugee youth. He says there's a typical sentencing pattern. "The case involving a first offense will be closed, then comes a first hearing and a second hearing, both of which end with fines. After another infraction, he is subject to a juvenile arrest. If another crime is committed, the youth gets sentenced to jail time, which is then converted to probation. And? To them it's easy peasy. They march out of the courtroom and flash the victory sign to their friends." Brennecke says he's represented defendants who have been prosecuted 15 or 16 times without ever being put at any serious disadvantage.
Johann Krieten, a juvenile court judge in Hamburg has developed his own method of ensuring an environment of respect. In his courtroom, he orders people to take off their hats, spit out their gum, sit up straight and keep quiet. Anyone who doesn't obey his rules is fined. Those who don't pay are then held in contempt of court custody.
When he asks where the defendants are from, Krieten is likewise not easily satisfied. He'll often ask a question about a mountain in the country they live in or a famous football player and can tell very quickly if he's being lied to or not. Sometimes the interpreters also provide solid clues about the defendant's true origins. "In any case, I have never had the feeling that I was not being taken seriously," Krieten says.
Does Germany Need to Get Tougher?
So does the German justice system need to find new language in order to better reach foreign offenders? Are tougher sentences necessary in order to put a lid on criminality on the part of young Moroccans and Tunisians?
Not according to Krieten. He still believes resocialization measures can be better than prison terms, even for young migrants. He points to youth welfare facilities that include limited detainment, as an example. There, young men are provided with intense guidance and supervision, far away from their old friends when possible. The judge says that one of the major problems is that he often only encounters juvenile delinquents very late in the process. Public prosecutors end many investigations due to insignificance -- in many instances as a result of a lack of staff needed to deal with the cases. This can leave young foreign offenders feeling that the state accepts their behavior.
Krieten argues that the justice system must do the opposite. It needs to make its presence felt and engage with young men who often have a problem with self-determined women and, as a last resort, know only the kind of violence they may have learned from their own families. "Instead of perpetuating the illusion that you can just deport them all," Krieten says, "the truth is that we must solve the problems here."
Better Enforcement Needed, Not New Laws
Regardless whether in Hamburg, Braunschweig or Cologne, the problems with criminal immigrants in Germany's major cities didn't just pop up overnight on New Year's Eve. And they cannot be solved with the kind of prescriptions given by the government after every crisis: tightening laws and issuing new regulations.
What is more important is the consistent application of the laws already on the books. This would require a stronger police presence and hiring more staff in the government agencies in question. It would also require more money. In short: The state has to become more active and creative in order to put a lid on these problems and regain full control over the country.
Elke Bartels, the chief of police in Duisburg, a German city with a population of close to half a million, has already tested how that might be done. During the summer, a district in the northern part of the city dominated by foreign clans threatened to spiral out of control. Even during the most trivial of police deployments, officers at times found themselves quickly surrounded by large crowds -- with the occasional exchange of blows and threats. During one drug inspection, for example, a female police officer and her colleague were beaten to the ground. They had to draw their weapons and call for reinforcements in order to escape the situation.
From that point on, they began investigating every single violation of the law and each breach of public order in the problem areas, from people using their mobile phones while driving to trash thrown away illegally to disturbing the peace. Since then, police have issued close to 4,000 fines and taken 75 people into temporary custody.
"We have recaptured respect," Bartels says.
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