Lax in Cologne.

Photographer: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

German Police Are Too Soft, Really

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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The outbreak of sexual crime in Cologne on New Year's Eve is turning into the latest big problem for Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal stance on accepting refugees from the Middle East, but it has broader implications than that. A realization is dawning that Germany can no longer be policed in the lax way it has been.

Statistically, Germany is not a particularly safe country for women by European standards. According to the latest data on sexual violence available from Eurostat, only the U.K, Belgium and Sweden report more such crimes. 

Is Europe Safe for Women?
Reported sexual violence rates per 100,000 residents, 2013
Source: Eurostat

Yet statistics can be deceptive: Germany has felt safe in recent years. Unaccompanied kids ride the Berlin subway system at all hours. Women freely walk at night in the seediest areas. In some smaller towns, people still don't lock the doors to their homes. One explanation is that more crimes may be reported to the police than in most other countries, because Germans respect police officers. Levels of trust in the police force as an institution are among the highest in Europe -- exceeded only in Scandinavia and Switzerland. This allows Germany to maintain one of the lowest levels of public order and safety spending in the European Union, at 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. The EU average is 1.8 percent. 

It's obvious to anyone arriving from a more violent or more repressive country that policing in Germany is rather relaxed. Open soft drug dealing goes on in some areas and police are nowhere in sight. A ban on alcohol and smoking on public transport is not enforced. Though video surveillance has become more widespread in recent years -- all major train and subway stations now have cameras -- there's still an aversion to cameras in cities: Private individuals in Germany have the right to move unobserved in public spaces. And when it comes to a confrontation, officers hardly ever use guns, though they carry them. Last year, eight people died in shootings that involved police in Germany, a nation of 82 million. 

The tendency to let people do whatever they want as long as they're not causing serious damage is understandable given Germany's past, when one could say that policing was at times excessive. Sometimes this preference for freedom over enforcement leads to grievous results, especially during Germany's raucous festivals. The Oktoberfest in Munich, when beer drinkers from around the world revel on the Wiesn fairgrounds, is notorious for the crime that accompanies it. Last year, Munich police reported 20 sexual crimes including an attempted rape (and there were newspaper reports of other rapes), as well as seven robberies. That may not seem like a lot for two weeks of mass drunkenness among 6 million visitors, but activists claim a lot of the sexual crimes go unreported. Feminist Anne Wizorek has put the number of these hidden sexual crimes at 200 per year, claiming that all the talk of migrant violence in Cologne trivializes the problem of violence against women by native Germans.

She's right about that, but New Year's night has posed a strong challenge to the dominant, politically correct narrative. More than a hundred women reported being sexually assaulted in Cologne and dozens more suffered the same treatment, allegedly all at the hands of Middle Eastern men, in Hamburg and Stuttgart. Although European police forces do not break down crime statistics by ethnicity or country of origin, it's hard to ignore that many recent immigrants and asylum seekers come from countries where these kinds of attacks on women are especially common.

This presents a new kind of threat to police. On Thursday, German newspapers published a leaked internal report from the Cologne police that described how officers found themselves helpless when faced with the mob. "It was impossible to help every crime victim and apprehend the perpetrators," the report flatly stated. The senior officer who wrote the report added: "The force encountered disrespect such as I have never experienced in 29 years of service."

Both the disrespect and the sense of being overmatched are new to the German police. For years, their "live and let live" attitude worked at the rowdiest festivals. People were grateful for the trust and freedom they were implicitly accorded and crime remained manageable -- even, arguably, at Oktoberfest. Now, this pact has been broken. The police report quotes a young man mocking an officer: "I am Syrian! You have to treat me kindly, Mrs. Merkel invited me!"

In Cologne, rank-and-file officers have proved more outspoken than their bosses about the perpetrators' origins and ethnicity. They told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag that most of the men whose papers they checked at the scene had been recently-arrived Syrian asylum seekers. That's something the Interior Ministry has been careful not to say even while admitting that the attackers were Middle Eastern. 

The point, however, isn't for the police to be tougher on immigrants but to create a safer environment for people during big festivals. One of these, the carnival, is coming in February, and preventing new outbreaks of crime means making sure officers are visible in public spaces and aggressive crowds are dispersed before damage is done. There would have to be less tolerance for public drunkenness and carelessness with fireworks. In other words, German policing would have to become more obtrusive. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has called for more video surveillance in public places, and Germany can probably no longer get away with keeping a relatively small police force -- about 300 officers per 100,000 people, fewer than anywhere in eastern and southern Europe, though more than in the U.K. and Scandinavia. 

There is a fine line between more forceful policing and a police state, especially for Germans eager to defend their freedoms after their respective experiences with the Nazis and Communists. It is, however, important for Germany to show to the worst of the newcomers that violence won't be tolerated. The current laissez-faire attitude doesn't send that message.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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