08/24/2011 12:01 PM

Burning Cars

Germany Struggles to Quell Arson Problem

By Bruno Schrep

Hundreds of cars have gone up in smoke in Hamburg and Berlin in recent months. But try as they might, officials have been unable to stop the series of arson attacks. Now, it looks as though the perpetrators are no longer just leftist extremists -- but a Hamburg taskforce has made little headway.

The young man, awakened by the sounds of the doorbell and loud knocking, comes to the door barefoot and wearing a bathrobe. "Can we come in?" asks Senior Detective Christine O., showing her police I.D. "My place is a mess," says the sleepy-looking 23-year-old, reluctantly making way for the visitors. "Doesn't bother us at all," says Senior Detective Kai K., the second plainclothes officer, as he steps into the apartment. He glances into the tiny kitchen, where dirty dishes are stacked in the sink.

The conversation, which takes place around noon, lasts only a few minutes.

"You do know that a lot of cars are being set on fire," says Christine O. "So what?" "This isn't just property damage; it's also considered a crime." "So?" "We're talking about a prison term, not probation."

The young man looks nervously from one officer to the other. "And why are you telling me this?" he asks, looking bewildered. Christine O. pulls out a report.

"Weren't you stopped by the police the other night?" "Yeah. I had to show them my I.D. That was it." "Why were you out so late?" "I'm a cook. I often work until midnight." "Where?" the inspector asks. "At a restaurant in Poppenbüttel."

As they walk back to their car, the officers agree that the young man is harmless. "He's not setting fires," says Kai K. "Who's next?" Someone in a completely different league, says Christine O., reading from a document in her hand. "He set basements on fire three times, was involved in drug deals and has prior convictions for assault and graffiti vandalism."

Visits and Conversations

Christine O. and Kai K. are officers on a special mission. As part of the police force's youth protection division, they see themselves as both inspectors and social workers. Their goal is to prevent adolescents and young people, through visits and conversations, from committing serious crimes.

Christine O., 44, who used to work as a street cop in Hamburg's St. Georg red-light district, and 50-year-old Kai K., a former police trainer for the United Nations, are among the Hamburg police department's last hopes for coming to grips with a sinister phenomenon: the series of arson attacks on parked cars. Since 2004, more than 1,400 vehicles have gone up in flames within the city limits.

In the current year alone, police had counted more than 330 torched cars by mid-August.

The fear that such arson attacks can create in a city has been evident in Berlin in recent days. Several dozen cars have been set on fire in the German capital, with some of the attacks occurring in traditionally middle-class neighborhoods like Charlottenburg and Zehlendorf. Even the deployment of police helicopters outfitted with thermal imaging cameras have been unable to put a stop to the fires. A dozen cars went up in smoke on Monday night with three more set on fire on Tuesday night.

The malicious attacks have quickly turned into a political issue. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined the debate, voicing her concern that human lives are being "gambled with cold-bloodedly." And her party, the Christian Democratic Union, which has long been searching for an attractive campaign issue to call its own ahead of Berlin city-state elections in September, has zeroed in on the arson attacks. While Berlin's eternally cheerful Social Democratic (SPD) mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has more or less helplessly called upon citizens to be more vigilant, the CDU plans to use alarming images of burning cars in their campaign posters, along with the slogan: "So That Berlin Doesn't Turn Into London."

No Longer Safe from Vandalism

Arson attacks in the German capital are not new, but they had long been focused on luxury vehicles, and were seen as a tool, primarily of the radical left, in an ideological struggle over coveted residential quarters. Now though, the Berlin arsons are hardly distinguishable from those in Hamburg, where every citizen could be a target, from the owners of expensive sports cars parked on downtown streets to drivers of compact cars and middle-class minivans who live in suburban row-house neighborhoods. Even motorcycles and scooters are no longer safe from vandalism.

"I'm just furious," says a businessman from the Eppendorf neighborhood in Hamburg, after his car was torched on a narrow residential street, together with five other cars. Not only is he furious with the arsonists, who almost always disappear without a trace, but also with the government for its apparent inability to protect his property.

The BMW owner was awakened by the load noise of bursting tires. When he looked down at his convertible from his fourth-floor apartment, the wheel case was burning. By the time he had reached the street, the engine was on fire. Police officers prevented him from recovering valuables from inside the vehicle, citing the risk of explosion.

The arson victim says that, as a genuine liberal, he used to advocate a restrained criminal justice system. But now he has changed his mind, saying that arsonists should be given "at least five years" instead of the standard sentence of five months with probation.

Outside in Their Pajamas

In his particular case, things could actually have been much worse. A tree caught on fire, sending flames shooting up to windows on the third floor. It became so hot inside the building that the businessman's girlfriend couldn't even use the stairwell.

The arson attacks have repeatedly put human lives in danger. In Hamburg's Elmsbüttel neighborhood, local residents and emergency workers inhaled caustic fumes from a car fire in late May, and a married couple and three police officers suffered critical smoke poisoning. In early July, flames from another car fire, this time in the city's Lokstedt neighborhood, spread to a nearby apartment building, forcing tenants to run outside in their pajamas.

"Eventually, there will be casualties," says Andreas Lohmeyer, 49, head of the Hamburg police department's crime-fighting division. He is under enormous pressure. The nearly impossible task of protecting 4,000 kilometers of city streets and about 720,000 registered vehicles from vandalism is beginning to take its toll.

Lohmeyer is one of those responsible for one of the biggest police operations in Hamburg history. Already, more officers have been assigned to fighting the arsonists than were deployed to hunt for RAF terrorists. As such, the costs of the current operation are high.

Yet it has been relatively unsuccessful, even when, more than a year ago, a special commission dubbed "Florian" was sending up to 200 uniformed and plainclothes police officers into the streets every night, and when helicopters were circling over the city and entire districts were being combed for would-be arsonists. Ten cars were even set on fire in the night preceding a conference of state interior ministers.

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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