Assault in office: with an anonymous fist

Police violence cases are almost always dropped, a new study says. Mostly because the officers could not be identified.

Brought down by water cannon – police violence takes many forms Photo: dpa/Sebastien Salom-Gomis

For the police, the use of force is exempt from punishment under certain conditions. This includes proportionality: officers are obliged to choose the least effective means. Anyone who uses force beyond that is liable to prosecution. But this crime is hardly prosecuted in Germany. The extent of police violence is also unknown.

A new study now concludes that the dark field is "at least five times as large as the bright field." The interim report is based on 3,375 reports from victims in communities of all sizes, from villages to large cities with over 500,000 inhabitants.

It is the largest study of police violence in the German-speaking world to date: Since 2018, the research project "Assault by Police Officers", led by criminology professor Tobias Singelnstein at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum (RUB), has been investigating physical violence by police officers, which those affected rate as disproportionate.

It was already known that more than 2,000 complaints are filed against police officers every year. While public prosecutors bring charges in an average of about 20 percent of all investigations, the situation is different here: Less than 2 percent of complaints result in an indictment. Less than 1 percent end in a conviction.

Groundless escalation

The RUB study now examines the situations in which perceived police violence occurs and what consequences it has for those affected. Furthermore, it is a question of why charges are usually not filed and public prosecutors drop almost all proceedings. The respondents took part online: They are predominantly male, on average 26 years old at the time of the incident and highly educated (technical or university entrance qualification). 16 percent have an immigrant background.

As the selection of respondents was not random, the sample is not representative. Nevertheless, conclusions could be drawn for the overall situation, the authors write. "The respondents described a wide variety of situations […] Against this background, it can be assumed that unlawful police violence can in principle occur in all operational situations."

Three situations were mentioned particularly frequently by respondents: demonstrations and political actions (55 percent), soccer matches and other major events (25 percent), and operations outside of major events (20 percent), such as traffic controls. A significant proportion of those surveyed had initially been uninvolved and had only observed the police action.

About one-third of those affected said they could see no reason why police actions were directed against them in the first place. More than half reported rapid escalation: that less than two minutes passed between the first contact and the use of force.

Feelings of powerlessness

Mild to moderate injuries, such as bruises and bruises, dominate the physical consequences. Just under 20 percent of respondents said they had suffered serious injuries, such as broken bones, severe head injuries and internal injuries. Some report permanent damage (4 percent).

More than 80 percent report psychological consequences, especially "anger, fear or discomfort at the sight of the police." Over half say they avoid similar situations. Affected people also report greater jumpiness, irritability, sleep disturbances and joylessness. About one-third would have sought medical help due to physical consequences, and just under 10 percent report psychological help.

Only 9 percent filed a complaint. Many of them say they wanted to prevent further cases of unlawful violence. Those affected who did not report it, on the other hand, justified it with the feeling that they had no chance anyway. "Many cite fear of a counter-report, the feeling that no one will believe them, and the non-identifiability of the officers," Singelnstein tells the taz.

Tobias Singelnstein, criminologist

"It could be solved simply, by compulsory identification. Across the board, not just in some federal states"

In fact, prosecutors would have dropped almost all completed cases of those affected without charges (93 percent). Common reason here, too: Non-identifiability. Singelnstein says he did not expect this to be such a central problem. But: "It could easily be solved by making identification compulsory. Nationwide, not just in some states."

Also, he says, there needs to be a separate body to which those affected can turn. "The police will have such problems as long as the use of force is part of its tasks. It is an institution with over 200,000 people: Of course there are officers* who abuse their authority for mistreatment. The main question is how the police deal with this problem." The research project also works with police officers and is planned to run until 2020.

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