The fuzz on Alex

Forget about Kotti: Alexanderplatz is Berlin’s #1 crime hotspot. The number of crimes in the area has doubled over the last decade. Our reporter spent an afternoon with the new police unit set up to patrol the square.

Image for The fuzz on Alex

Photo by Hanson Walker

Forget about Kotti: Alexanderplatz is Berlin’s #1 crime hotspot. The number of crimes in the area has doubled over the last decade – that’s over 20 crimes taking place each day in the shadow of Berlin’s TV tower. Our reporter spent an afternoon with the new police unit set up to patrol the square.

A surprisingly humbling moment during my time patrolling Alexanderplatz with the Berlin police comes in the late afternoon. It’s a warm Sunday in early May. We cross the M4 tram lines and walk past Saturn when Officer Blumberg, a young, clean-cut member of the area’s special police force, stops to admire the sun directly behind the Fernsehturm, whose shadow looms over the square. He asks our photographer to snap some shots, while his two colleagues grab their iPhones to document the vista for themselves. An uncannily idyllic moment on what’s supposed to be Berlin’s crime hotspot: three cops kitted out in bulletproof vests, handguns at their hips, “POLIZEI” emblazoned across the back of their dark blue uniforms. They work out of the Wache am Alexanderplatz that opened in December 2017 in response to the square being declared a kriminalitätsbelastete Ort in 2016 – translating roughly to “crime-ridden” area. This classification ensures a greater police presence, along with expanded rights that allow officers to stop anyone for ID and search them, regardless of whether they pose any real threat or not.

Crimes doubled here between 2008-2017 – reaching 7479 incidents last year. That’s over 20 crimes per day in the area around the iconic TV Tower. Violent crimes are increasing too, with 668 reported assaults last year. Recent media and political attention on Alexanderplatz began with the October 2012 murder of 20-year-old Thai-German student Jonny K., in a city where murders are practically unheard of.

Thus was born the police booth out of what seems to be a perfect storm of political pressure, discussions on immigration, and the police force’s desire to bolster their public image after criticisms following the December 2016 Christmas market attack. The hut boasts its own dedicated force of 30 officers. Coordination between the Berlin police, the Bundespolizei (Federal Police) and the Ordnungsamt (public order officers) is constant. The air-conditioned room has one member from each present at all times. People come in to report a theft or to hand in lost or stolen items. Alex also boasts record numbers of pickpockets (1854 thefts in 2017, a five-fold increase over 10 years ago) and many stolen wallets get thrown away once emptied of bank cards and cash. Most visitors seem to be tourists coming in with questions about directions. It feels like the police booth is being mistaken for a tourist information centre.

Leading the patrol today is Assistant Chief Robin Gottschlag who is flanked by his two shorter colleagues. The trio walk side by side, slowly, with calculated purpose, scanning their environment with hawk-like vision. As we pass through a small grassy area, where families and drained tourists seek refuge from the heat, one of the officers, sporting aviators and a general “bad cop” vibe, keeps his eyes on an Eastern European family relaxing on some benches to our right. Nothing dramatic transpires, but the tension is palpable. With stores closed and a bike race shutting down various tram lines, Gottschlag and his two colleagues decide to look for homeless people sleeping and potentially dehydrating in the sun. On the Fernsehturm steps, a poor fellow gets subsequently accosted, although lying in the shade. He sits up from his deep sleep, groggy and less than excited to see the police standing over him, before nodding in confirmation to “Alles gut?” Good enough for the officers, it seems. In the winter, they look for those braving the cold to make sure they are still breathing. “It sounds bleak but it’s all we can do,” explains Gottschlag rather matter-of-factly.

Alex’s expansive train station is a hectic yet crucial stop on their patrol. An opportunity for the Berlin officers to check in with two of their Bundespolizei colleagues (responsible for stations and airports), who don sharp, all-black gear and sport body cameras on their vests. But here again tourist queries seem to be the main police duty. Gottschlag is happy to accommodate and exhibit his good English. Meanwhile Officer Blumberg warns customers at outdoor cafés against leaving their phones out in the open.

On the U8 platform, another regular stop on the patrol, we run into BVG inspectors writing up two women in their mid-twenties. They’ve been caught on the train without tickets, and claim they have neither money to pay the €60 fine nor ID on them. Blumberg asks to search their bags, which they legally could anyway, and discovers their passports. A look of embarrassment immediately flashes across the girls’ faces as it becomes clear they have been caught red-handed trying to provide false information. “Not the smartest move,” comments an impervious Gottschlag.

Image for The fuzz on Alex

Photo by Hanson Walker

Emerging from underground, the officers make a beeline for three young Middle Eastern kids sitting on the steps in front of Primark. The youngest is no older than 12, the oldest probably only around 18 or 19, with the third somewhere in between. They pose no danger to anyone, and a few (white) couples sit just as inconspicuously on the same steps, but the officers ask them for ID, which they all whip out with no hesitation. The policemen shoot off a series of questions. Suddenly, the interaction feels routine. The oldest whispers some words to his younger friends, seemingly reassuring the 12-year-old, who has resorted to picking at his nails. Out of nowhere, the officers ask for the boys’ smartphones. Apprehensively, they hand them over. Blumberg pokes through some menus before radioing a number over to dispatch. After some uncomfortable waiting around, the phones are handed back, along with a cheery sign-off from the officers, and the boys are finally left alone. Gottschlag is quick to justify the interaction: one of the teens is known to Officer Blumberg from “previous incidents”. Furthermore, the phones such “groups” have often tend to have been stolen. The number that was relayed was the smartphone’s IMEI number, which the police search for in their database of stolen or lost phones. He notes that the Berlin police maintain a record of people and groups that have been involved in incidents, better allowing them to identify sources of trouble that they can then in turn stop, search and question. The profiling is justified as merely factual and never racial. Their aim is to keep tabs and regularly check in on “sources of trouble”, in the hopes of quelling conflict before it arises.

Gottschlag and his colleagues return to their desks for the slog of paperwork that follows each patrol. “For every 10 minutes of on-the-ground police work, there are 20 minutes of desk work,” admits the assistant chief. Such is life.

The new sense of safety is palpable on Alex and the police hope their efforts and increased visibility will be reflected in the statistics for 2018, following last year’s increase in assaults, thefts and robberies on Alexanderplatz. “The feeling is that there are fewer groups around who might get into conflict with the law,” says the chief of the Alexanderplatz Wache Daniela Polti. If true, the question remains: if these “trouble-prone groups” are no longer hanging out at Alex, where have they gone?