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A cop’s life: an insider’s view

Read EXBERLINER's exclusive interview with a veteran policeman. "An officer who hasn't had a complaint against him for his entire career - I'd consider him a danger to public safety."

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Unidentified cops in action on May 2010. Photo by Chris Lewis

This Berlin police officer is in his mid-fifties and has been in the force for over 20 years. He is a Hauptmeister (senior sergeant) in a west-central district of the city, and also works in a “conflict prevention” team during demonstrations. He agreed to speak to EXBERLINER on condition of strict anonymity.

What’s the mood among police officers in Berlin today? Are you satisfied?

The Berlin police are paid much less than their counterparts in other German states. I earn €500 less per month than a Hauptmeister in Baden-Württemberg. Besides that, as you can probably imagine, things on the Berlin streets are much rougher than they are, for example, in a village in Bavaria. And we work in shifts, which means that sometimes I get home at 3 am, and a few hours later, at 10 am, I’m on duty again until at least 10 pm. My internal clock is completely messed up.

The police are really frustrated: when it comes to minor crimes they only go through the motions while on duty; some begin to drink, their marriage goes to hell. You need a hefty dose of commitment and a functioning support network of colleagues to prevent that, and also to give you a chance to talk about things you see on the job. When I worked at Heiligendamm [the site of the 2007 G8 conference], I saw a paving slab thrown at us by a demonstrator bore through my colleague’s arm. Images like that stay with you.

Why do you think the police have a bad reputation among some people?

Police officers are often used as scapegoats. So after a big action, an individual act of misconduct is often singled out in order to hide the fact that the wrong tactics used by the officer were actually devised by superiors. And often our arrests look really brutal from an outsider’s perspective. During the 2003 student demonstrations, for example. There were 20 or 30 troublemakers mixed into the demonstration, and they indiscriminately damaged property: broke car mirrors, that kind of thing. When we stepped into action and attempted to separate them from the masses, they naturally immediately banded with the peaceful student demonstrators against us “shit pigs” [Scheissbullen]. Not one of the vandals was a student. And we had no choice: they had to be removed. And during this operation, we, in our riot gear, looked really intimidating. But believe me, we’d love to get rid of it and be 30 kilos lighter.

But – like at the last May 1 demo – there are examples of officers’ use of unnecessary violence. Imagine, you’ve been on duty for 24 hours; first during Walpurgisnacht, then May Day. At 10 pm, with 100 insults being shouted at you, it can happen that you lose your temper. Of course, it’s wrong and unprofessional. And there are definitely black sheep who get a rush from the power that comes from being in uniform and think it gives them the right to do things they shouldn’t. Even one who does that is one too many. But I also think that cases of police misconduct should be judged in the context of the circumstances they occur in.

How do you explain cases of misconduct? Is there a certain mentality among the police that fosters the overstepping of boundaries?

Yeah, some have this mentality: kiss up, kick down. Some people seek out victims. That kind of thing definitely isn’t as widespread as it was before. But at the same time, there will always be some who view the police force as a private club and think they’re hotshots. Such people have very little self-confidence, and rely on the sense of security the structure system gives them. I, personally, try to deal with misconduct on a case-by-case basis, and when I sense something fishy happened, I take the officer aside and have a very serious word with him.

The claim that police are racist comes up often. How do you respond to that?

There is a form of racism in the police force, and that comes from the fact that 80 percent of the time, the people that commit crimes, the ones we deal with, have a minority background. We never really come face-to-face with the ‘good’ minorities, even if they’re the majority. That’s probably also the reason why immigrants are more often stopped on the street: because our experience has taught us to have that as a first instinct. But it’s also true that we enforce the law much more strictly during right-wing demonstrations: at the slightest breach of the rules, we stop them. If the same thing happened during a left-wing demo, we’d let it run its course.

We came across a case in which a young, English tourist was poorly treated by the police. Do you think that there is resentment against foreigners who don’t speak German?

I don’t really. There are definitely party tourists who go around Berlin in big, drunken groups and cause stress, and the police force definitely slept through the internationalization of Berlin. Nevertheless, more and more officers can speak English very well and, if necessary, one of those can be called during an operation. Its other languages that actually cause the real difficulties: it would be good to have Arabic speakers, or even Swahili and Chinese.

In your experience, what happens to police officers who are found guilty of misconduct?

They’re dealt with harshly. When the disciplinary committee steps in, it can really hurt. I know of one case where a colleague of mine was pursuing a gas station robber and cornered him in a courtyard. The guy cracked his head against the pavement, and the marks were visible afterwards. There was an investigation for “infliction of bodily harm while on duty” because the guy claimed that the police hit his head against the pavement multiple times. The court case was dismissed, but the officer still underwent disciplinary proceedings and had to pay a €2000 fine.

We call the LKA 314 [Criminal Investigation Department], which deals with complaints against police officers, the “officer murder squad”. They can be very harsh. Convicting a police officer of misconduct can help a young prosecutor climb the career ladder, because this type of case always draws a lot of public attention. But most of the proceedings end up being dismissed for lack of evidence.

Have you ever had to testify against a colleague?

Yes, I personally testified against a colleague, along with three others who were also at the scene. At a demonstration, he kicked a protester who was participating in a sitting blockade and didn’t want to stand up. The worst thing was that his action caused the situation to escalate, so it put us all in danger. But testifying was very difficult. You see, I have a very close relationship with my colleagues…

You almost save your colleague three times a week, on average, from some situation or another, and you’ve told him everything important to you at some time – more, maybe, than your wife. But when an offence has taken place, I couldn’t act differently.

No one should get a break, just because he’s a police officer, or rather, specifically because he’s one. Who is responsible for upholding the law, if not us?

Have charges ever been filed against you?

Yes; and for “bodily injury while on duty”, as well. Something like that can happen very quickly: we’ve arrested someone, and although we have a warrant, the judge accuses us of illegal restraint. As an active while on duty, an officer might lose a promotion. That means you’re going to think a while before you touch someone, even when it would be justifiable.

Have you ever had to face trial?

Two cases against me developed into full court cases. Both were dismissed; if they hadn’t been, I would no longer be a police officer.

Do you enjoy being a police officer?

To be honest, being a policeman was never actually my dream job, but it’s grown on me. The job is interesting – although I also have to deal with auto accidents, I really can’t stand that – but it’s also difficult and unfair. I’ve already had so many injuries: broke my thumb and my leg, got my cheek bone bashed in, my teeth punched out, my shoulder dislocated. Nevertheless, every so often you get thanked or you have the opportunity to really help someone. And I’m a street dog – I love being on the streets, I like the action and the fact that every day is different from the one before. Today, I can say that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Are you happy with your new blue uniform?

To tell you the truth, I’d rather have new, better cars than different uniforms. The color really isn’t that important to me. I’m worried that switching to blue will end up causing irritation, because security guards and a bunch of other professions have blue uniforms.

I was nervous the first time I went on duty in the new uniform: would people think we were plumbers? But I must also say that the new trousers are practical, because they have side pockets. And I like the baseball caps, too.