The German Review
The German Review Podcast
Dying in uniform: are German police under threat?

Dying in uniform: are German police under threat?

A brutal killing in south Germany raises questions...

Here’s this week’s podcast. I’ve also added a text version of it below for people who prefer to read!

The Covid pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have both been pushed off the front pages this week by an event that was as brutal as it was rare in this country.

In the early hours of Monday morning, two young police officers on a night patrol in rural Rhineland-Palatinate spotted a car parked on a lay-by and decided to take a closer look.

Their instincts proved to be correct. 

After the officers took the identification of two men inside, the more senior officer searched the boot, where he found the carcasses of several freshly killed wild animals. 

While he was behind the vehicle, one of the men pulled out a shotgun and shot his colleague, a 24-year-old trainee, killing her instantly.

The first officer was able to alert his station and returned fire. But he was hit by four bullets and had died by the time backup arrived. By that time the murderers were long gone.

By the afternoon, a heavily armed swat team moved in on a property 50 kilometres to the south and arrested two men. The search had been made easy by the fact that one of the suspect’s ID cards was found at the crime scene.

The case has shocked the country, not least for the fact that neither of the officers had reached their 30th birthday. Also jarring is the fact that a couple of poachers would take such extreme measures to hide a relatively minor crime. 

The act was so cold blooded that Interior Minister Nancy Faeser compared it to an execution.

Newspaper editors and police detectives will surely now be asking whether the men were more than just poachers. Did they have links to an extremist ideology? According to a report in Der Spiegel, police have found a weapons arsenal at one of the suspect’s homes that goes well beyond hunting rifles.

Once the dust has settled, broader questions will begin to be asked.

Was this an isolated incident - the exceptional actions of two unhinged men, that prove the rule that German police officers don’t die in the line of duty? 

Or could this be the loudest warning yet that the relationship between German society and its law enforcement is becoming ever more fractured?

For Germany's police unions it is definitely a case of the latter.

Union boss Rainer Wendt told Bild Zeitung that: “It is no secret that violence against the police is increasing and becoming more brutal. Often it is seemingly everyday things, a traffic control or breach of the peace which suddenly develop into violence.”

Official data shows that cops are particular targets for extremists from both the left and right - for whom they are “Bullen” or bulls, a derogatory term equivalent to “pigs” in English.

The most dramatic recent attack on the police came from a member of the far-right Reichsburger movement, who’d holed himself up at home and was refusing to give up his weapons. When a swat team stormed the building, he managed to shoot one dead and injured several others.

But, while police unions are understandably keen to raise public awareness about the risks officers face, it is not at all clear that life in uniform is more dangerous now than it was in the old days.

The fact that murders of police officers are so rare makes it hard to identify a trend. Before Monday’s killing eight other officers had been murdered in the past decade.

That’s quite a bit less than when officers were regularly dying in shoot outs with members of the Rote Arme Faktion, a communist cell that terrorized the country in the 1970s.

Another cause of death among German police officers that has largely disappeared is bank robberies. Between 1970 and 1985 at least seven officers lost their lives while pursuing bank robbers, who knew that the stakes for being caught were extremely high.

Thanks to the digitization of money, bank heists just aren't worth the bother these days. Recent crime statistics show that this most romanticised form of crime has basically died out.

As a result, not a single policeman has died in a bank robbery since the mid-1990s.

Police unions stress though that the increased aggression towards officers is seen in lower impact violence.

In 2017 they successfully lobbied the government to create a new law that singles out attacks on police officers for special punishment. They point to statistics that show a steady increase in officers reporting being the victims of violence.

But critics point out the partisan nature of such statistics. 

The police unions are relying on data produced by the police and based on reporting by individual police officers. The fact that several officers can report being the victim when, for example, a bottle is thrown at them could mean officers have been more active in reporting aggression in recent years.

What is clear though is that a comparison with other developed countries shows that the relationship between the German Polizei and society is still a relatively peaceful one.

In France, five officers have been murdered in the past 14 months. But that’s nothing in comparison with the USA, where 59 cops were killed in the first nine months of last year alone.

If there is any consolation to be taken in Germany from Monday’s horrific crime, it’s that in other countries it wouldn't be much cause for shock at all.

The German Review
The German Review Podcast
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Jörg Luyken