Burning Cars Germany Struggles to Quell Arson Problem


By Bruno Schrep

Part 2: The Challenges of Tracking Down the Perpetrators

The already battered CDU/Green Party coalition under then Mayor Ole von Beust was in disgrace, while former SPD domestic policy expert Andreas Dressel scoffed over what he called "primitive rhetoric and politicking." But now Dressel, parliamentary floor leader of the Social Democrats, who won the last election in the city-state, is considerably more cautious. The nightly fires also threaten the new administration of Mayor Olaf Scholz. The problem, Dressel admits sheepishly, cannot be solved quickly.

But what is to be done?

Officials are pinning their hopes on a new strategy that involves directly addressing potentially threatening individuals. The police reason that if they cannot catch the arsonists red-handed, they can at least put pressure on suspicious individuals. "We want to set a signal," says Reinhard Chedor, head of the Hamburg State Office of Criminal Investigation. "Our message is this: We have you on our radar, my friends, so watch your step. We're keeping a very close eye on you."

Officers who are part of the task force -- which includes Christine O. and Kai K., as well as 20 other members of the police youth protection division -- are now knocking on doors at hundreds of addresses in Hamburg, a city of 1.8 million. They issue warnings and write reports. Their goal is to speak to young people in the language they understand, performing the balancing act of establishing a relaxed rapport while not coming across as too chummy.

The special team is setting its sights on the roughly 6,000 individuals whose personal information was entered into the system during last year's nighttime raids, as well as other suspects who have already drawn the attention of the authorities through typical youthful misconduct: as graffiti sprayers, drug consumers, thugs and members of violent street gangs.

'I Don't Trust That One'

Detective O. and her partner K. usually arrive unannounced, which is why they often encounter closed doors. On this Tuesday afternoon, they manage to gain entry at only three residences.

"I don't trust that one," says K., after their visit with Timo. "If there's a fire near his place, we'll pay him another visit." The 21-year-old, in the presence of his father, denied any involvement in arson attacks. But when the officers questioned him about his friends, he said nothing, and when confronted about his past he sought to downplay those offences, saying: "Oh, that happened ages ago."

Timo had been involved in setting fire to garbage cans, which led to an explosion in one case, and his record also included a fraud conviction and two assault charges. "And he doesn't look you in the eye, either," says Christine O. She too has an uneasy feeling about the young man.

Cedrik, with his earrings and three-day growth, still half-asleep, sharply denies any involvement in arson attacks. Sitting on the sofa in his parents' living room, he points to the street and says: "Our family has three cars. I'd have to be crazy."

"But you do know a lot of people," says Detective O., after glancing into Cedrik's file, "and quite a few of them are pretty sketchy." "But not that sketchy;" he replies. "There is a €20,000 reward," the officer says, by way of enticement, "and you should understand that we depend on your help." "I can't help you."

Marcel, 17, is more forthcoming. The boy, who lives with foster parents and has had his share of brushes with the law, has been afraid of fire since suffering severe burns in a barbecue accident, which he survived only as a result of multiple skin transplants. He has no sympathy with the arsonists in his part of the city, even though, as he says, he knows some of them. How many are there, the officers ask. About 15, a group of them, he replies. How old? Between 19 and 22. Where do they meet? On the big playground.

No Longer the Left

But Marcel is unwilling to name names. Whether he truly doesn't know or is afraid of reprisals remains unanswered. His statements support the theories of Hamburg criminologist Ingeborg Legge, 56. She believes that many arsonists are recruited from so-called experience-oriented groups, which are loose collections of young men with a few things in common: a fundamentally aggressive position toward the state, too much strength for their own good, dissatisfaction with their current situation and a vague feeling of rage that they sometimes direct against themselves and sometimes against something external, like cars. Girls or young woman are almost never part of these groups.

According to Legge, roughly 10 rapper gangs with names like RGK (Reisegruppe Kiez, or Neighborhood Travelers), NSK (North Street Klan) and 187 (the section of the California penal code that defines murder) hold strong appeal for such young people. The gangs have become more noticeable in some neighborhoods. Video clips of burning cars and songs with disturbing lyrics ("I hate this country, and I shit on this society") that are widespread in the rapper community reinforce Legge's suspicion.

Using an enormous map of Hamburg, the criminologist demonstrates where, when and how often the fires have been set, which groups happened to be active in those particular neighborhoods, and which members with criminal records live there or have recently moved there. "Those are the ones we should visit."

In Hamburg, unlike Berlin, members of extreme left-wing groups are hardly part of the mix anymore. In the so-called autonomist scene, where the arsons began and where setting expensive luxury cars on fire was celebrated as part of the class struggle, the arsons are now controversial. The police attribute only 31 of the 297 car arsons in Hamburg within the last year to radical leftists.

Things had calmed down on Hamburg's streets in recent weeks, but was it a consequence of the success of the Brand Group's efforts to seek out potential arsonists? Those efforts seemed to have paid off, at least until last Tuesday, when unknown perpetrators set three more cars on fire in one night.

Coming from a Barbecue

The motives remain unclear. Are these actions the result of pure destructiveness? Is it social envy? Are they part of some initiation rite for those seeking to advance within a gang? Or are they demonstrations of power, which the vandals lack in real life?

Because most of the arsonists use charcoal lighters, so that about 10 minutes go by before the fire erupts, they usually have plenty of time to escape, which is one of the main reasons for the authorities' miserable success rate. And in the past, even those who were caught with charcoal lighters in their pockets and soot on their hands in proximity to a fire stood a good chance of getting away scot-free. Police were usually unable to refute the would-be perpetrators' argument that they had just come from a barbecue.

Even when arsonists are actually caught, as was recently the case in Berlin, they are not necessarily sent to prison. Though the Berlin suspect was photographed while lighting the fire, he was sentenced to probation and only 300 hours of community service. The fire, which was set in the radiator grill, went out on its own and the damage amounted to less than €100 ($144), accounting for the lenient sentence.

The case of Martin W. is one of the few which has gone to trial in Hamburg. He grew up in a neighborhood of brick houses in the northern part of the city. His parents have never attracted police attention, but are completely overwhelmed by raising three adolescent boys. Martin W. is a tall, powerful 20-year-old who likes to wear hoodies, smokes too much marijuana, drinks too much and still hasn't figured out what's good for him and what isn't.

He left school before graduating because, as he says, he was "really not into it anymore." Then he dropped out of a carpenter-training program after six months, because "goofing off was more fun." His frequent drug use led to constant arguments with his parents, drunken brawls and run-ins with the police. He often spends his nights out with friends, then sleeps until noon and works on his two scooters. He has been on sick leave for many months, because of his drug addiction.

'Because It's Fun!'

In the presence of his parents, and still showing scratches on his face from a fight the night before, he candidly tells his story, the story of how and his friends Christopher and André went to a neighborhood festival on a September day in 2010, after drinking six or seven beers and some vodka, and smoked a few joints. They suspected that there would be another exciting riot at the festival, as there had been every year.

When the first rocks and bottles began flying at police officers, the three young men spontaneously joined the fray, led by Martin W. Although he says he is completely apolitical, he has an aversion to police officers. Christopher was arrested, while the other two moved on. While building street barricades against water cannon, Martin W. and André made friends with Tom and Kai, two brothers with ideas. What do you say we set a couple of cars on fire, the brothers asked? Cool, Martin and André replied.

A €50,000 Mercedes-Benz parked on a side street went up in flames, while firefighters managed to save a BMW before it was destroyed. "Why are you doing this?" a resident shouted from a nearby balcony. "Because it's fun!" Tom, who shaves his head, shouted in return.

The police are never quite sure which members of such groups light the fires and which ones merely watch. Martin W. tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to torch a convertible and a scooter, but his lighter didn't work. He finally succeeded with a trash can.

At the Top of the List

What was he thinking? Well, he says, throwing rocks at the cops was "amusing enough," something different for a change. And the arson? Well, he says, it was "kind of fun." Fun? Okay, he admits, maybe that's not the right word, but it was something that was forbidden, and it only happened once.

While the juvenile court sentenced the three co-perpetrators to jail terms with and without the possibility of parole, Martin W. managed to get off with a slap on the wrist: community service and a few warnings. He still has the option to appeal the sentence.

Whether the 20-year-old will make it through the drug treatment program he recently began, and whether he will indeed resume his carpentry apprenticeship, as he promised his parents, remains open. It does seem pretty clear, however, that he can expect a visit from Detectives Christine O. and Kai K. As a convicted arsonist, he is at the top of the list of potential threats.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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