Germany debates racial profiling after controversial police action targeting North Africans

Mass sexual assaults in Cologne a year ago

During the 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve celebrations, hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed on the plaza outside Cologne’s main railway station opposite the city’s Gothic cathedral. Victims consistently described the perpetrators as men of Arab and/ or North African origin.

One year later, very few of these men have been convicted of any crimes, mainly due to the difficulty of identifying any particular individual and his actions in a teeming crowd caught on grainy CCTV footage. Yet the political ramifications of the mass sexual assaults have been momentous, with the events in Cologne constituting one of the turning points in Germany’s move towards a more restrictive immigration policy over the past year.

Political fallout

The sexual assaults in Cologne were not only followed by a harshened discourse on immigration, however. They also gave rise to renewed discussions about the presumed cultural or civilizational incompatibility of Arab Muslims with European or German values; a debate that was more often than not marked by the recycling of old Orientalist stereotypes.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/01/19/new-year%E2%80%B2s-eve-assaults-on-women-the-cologne-outcry/ ))

The events of Cologne were also grist to the mill of the populist AfD in another sense: since the sexual assaults were not reported in the national media for days, it appeared that the mainstream media and the political establishment were covering up the offences of immigrants out of a misguided impulse of political correctness. This accusation was also directed at Cologne’s police, who were lambasted from the right for failing to immediately and explicitly identify the perpetrators as Arabs and North Africans.

Learning from past mistakes?

This year, the Cologne police department appears to have been eager to prevent any conduct that could lead to renewed accusations of intransparency or political correctness. Ahead of the New Year’s Eve celebrations, police presence was also further augmented against the backdrop of the truck attack against a Berlin Christmas market on December 19.

Subsequently, on New Year’s Eve the police stopped and surrounded up to 1,300 men of North African origin while they were trying to reach the central plaza in front of the Cathedral. Police asserted that the men resembled “last year’s clientele”. They were said to stand out by a heightened “basic aggressiveness”. Police expelled 190 men from the premises, detained 92 and provisionally arrested 27. 10 cases of sexual assault were reported.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/koelner-silvesternacht-polizei-verteidigt-kontrollen-von.1818.de.html?dram:article_id=375275&utm_campaign=buffer&utm_content=buffer2fe62&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com ))

Questionable terminology

These measures have ignited a fierce debate on questions of race and racism. One of the communications made by Cologne’s police department proved particularly controversial: in a since-deleted tweet designed to keep the population up to date, police had announced that “several hundred Nafris are being checked at the central station.”(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-01/koeln-silvesternacht-polizei-nafris-vorwuerfe ))

The term “Nafri”, as police subsequently explained, serves as an abbreviation for ‘North African Intensive Criminal Offender’. The co-chair of the Green Party, Simone Peters, criticised such language as a “degrading group label” that was “completely inacceptable” due to its racist connotations.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/koeln-polizei-faengt-in-der-silvesternacht-hunderte-nordafrikaner-ab-aid-1.6497990 ))

While Cologne’s chief of police subsequently apologised for the usage of the term ‘Nafri’, he still defended the overall police operation as legitimate and proportionate. “It is simply the case”, he asserted, “that based on experiences of the last New Year’s Eve, and based on experiences gained through police operations more generally, we got a clear picture of which individuals had to be checked.” And these, he added, “were not grey-haired old men or blonde young women.”(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-01/koeln-silvesternacht-polizei-nafris-vorwuerfe ))

Public opinion supportive

Public opinion as well as leading politicians from virtually all parties have been very supportive of this stance taken by the police. Simone Peter was disparaged in Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, Bild, as “green-fundamentalist intensive windbag out of touch with reality”.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-01/cem-oezdemir-koeln-polizeieinsatz-simone-peter?utm_content=zeitde_redpost_zon_link_sf&utm_campaign=ref&utm_source=facebook_zonaudev_int&utm_term=facebook_zonaudev_int&utm_medium=sm&wt_zmc=sm.int.zonaudev.facebook.ref.zeitde.redpost_zon.link.sf ))

Beyond glib assertions and facile insults, however, the events of New Year’s Eve highlight that the Cologne police was caught in a real bind. The political fallout from a failure to prevent a repetition of mass sexual assaults would have been uncontrollable. Consequently, the police already announced prior to December 31 that it had lowered its “threshold of intervention” in order to guarantee a maximum of security.

And indeed, from a purely operational logic focused on the prevention of crimes, it is difficult to argue with the police’s observation that based on past experience it was not unreasonable to direct special attention to large groups of young men of North African descent. The balance between racism and discrimination on the one hand and security and necessary police work on the other hand appears exceedingly difficult to strike.

Questions of racial profiling

Nevertheless, all of this leaves behind an unsavoury aftertaste of racial profiling. The AfD Hamburg was, in fact, quick to assert that the Cologne police action showcased the need for precisely such profiling: “living in an open society means having to decide between racial profiling and mass assaults”. In a string of tweets, the AfD also gleefully picked up on the term ‘Nafri’, now using it as a racially charged catch-all phrase designating North African men in general.(( https://twitter.com/afd_hamburg?lang=en ))

Amnesty International has criticised the conduct of the police as a form of racial profiling violating human rights and likely to entrench stereotypes and prejudices. The organisation questioned whether the police had possessed enough individualised evidence against the hundreds of young men controlled.(( http://amnesty-polizei.de/massives-racial-profiling-durch-die-koelner-polizei-in-der-silvesternacht-massnahme-muss-kritisch-aufgearbeitet-werden/ ))

Tahir Dellar, chair of the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) noted that, in contrast to its usual practice of categorically denying any racial profiling, this time the Cologne police openly admitted to stopping individuals purely on the basis of ethnic criteria. Dellar assumed that this unusual openness about discriminatory police action was due to the fact that the police expected majority society to support discriminatory policies, as long as they were directed against North Africans.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/silvesternacht-in-koeln-wie-deutschland-mit-racial-profiling-umgeht-1.3317987 ))

Need for a broader public debate

Germany has witnessed periodic court cases on racial profiling, as well as occasional parliamentary debates on this subject matter.(( http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/18/004/1800453.pdf )) However, in contrast to the UK or the US, there is limited public awareness of issues of race and ethnicity in connection with police work.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/silvesternacht-in-koeln-wie-deutschland-mit-racial-profiling-umgeht-1.3317987 ))

German police and security services have struggled to attract immigrants or their children to their forces. A 2011 study highlighted that high-school graduates of Turkish descent were not convinced that they would be welcome in the ranks of the police. The collective failure of police and intelligence services to uncover the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terrorist group that killed above all immigrants, has further entrenched the perception that the police is unconcerned with racism at best and itself institutionally racist at worst.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2013-03/migranten-polizei-fremdenfeindlichkeit ))

The conduct of police operations in Cologne has prompted some – not just Arab Muslims – to share their stories of what they deem to be unwarranted racial profiling.(( https://correctiv.org/recherchen/flucht/artikel/2017/01/03/racial-profiling-neun-monaten-hat-mich-die-berliner-polizei-23-mal-kontrolliert/?utm_content=buffer7436b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer )) This is an important development: questions of race and racial profiling need to be openly addressed; and the police itself must become more representative of an increasingly diverse society. Only then can the police claim that its – perhaps well-meaning and necessary – actions on New Year’s Eve were also legitimate.