A striking number of people are killed by police in their own homes, and in many cases the victims were in a psychologically exceptional situation. A new website prepares information on police shootings from 1976 in a novel form.
Written with the software developer, data scientist and data analyst Johannes Filter
The greatest risk of being fatally shot by police in Germany has been in the federal states of Hamburg and Hesse since 1976. Overall, Berlin is the deadliest city with 28 victims (10 of them in West Berlin). Most frequently affected are 25-year-old men, the most dangerous month is December. There is also an accumulation on individual weekdays, with Thursdays and the sixth day of the month predominating. Fewer people die from police firearms use at weekends, where the involvement of special units in fatal operations is also significantly lower.
The conclusions are drawn from annual statistics of the magazine CILIP, which we are now re-sorting and visualising. Since 1976, CILIP has been counting fatal police shootings and comparing them with other information. On behalf of the Standing Conference of the Ministers and Senators of the Interior of the Länder (IMK), the German Police College (DHPol) compiles annual statistics on the use of firearms, which are completed in the spring or summer of the following year at the latest and published on request.
Besides warning shots, their overview distinguishes between use against animals, property and against persons. Another category is the unauthorised use of firearms, including against bystanders. Finally, injuries and deaths are also counted.
306 people shot since 1989
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 306 people have been shot dead by the German police. From 1976 to 1990, we count another 146 victims in West Germany. With our visualisation we can support the thesis that a considerable number of mentally impaired people are victims of police shootings. In about one fifth of all cases we find corresponding evidence; many of those affected are killed in their own homes, for example when they suddenly reach for a knife in reaction to police intrusion or in a feeling of being threatened. In a majority of cases, the later victims are armed, although nowadays more often with a stabbing weapon and less often with a firearm. It is also visible that in the last century, people shot more often during bank robberies.
We count all cases where people have died as a result of a police bullet. However, only the on-duty use of the weapons is listed. Therefore, we do not include the numerous “extended suicides” in which police officers kill partners or relatives beforehand. Also not counted are situations in which this occurs off duty. This concerns at least two cases from 1986 and 1995, in which police officers were helping out at a petrol station and used their service weapon in a robbery.
CILIP editor Otto Diederichs usually researches the fatal shootings in the press. In the past this was done by sifting through printed daily newspapers, today exclusively on the internet. The media reports should be treated with caution, because they are often dominated by the portrayal and thus the view of the police.
We then ask the responsible police authorities or public prosecutors’ offices for further details. Sometimes we have to add cases that were not known to us. Sometimes we also correct our count, for example if the fatal shootings we counted only led to a serious injury. We may also have misrepresented some cases, for example if new facts came to light in later investigations.
Discrepancies with the police count arise when the prosecutor’s investigation into the cause of death following the use of a firearm has not been completed. Then, the cases are assessed as “open”, i.e. they do not appear in the official annual statistics as “deaths”. The DHPol only took this into account from 2014 with the new heading “cases not yet classified (consequences)”.
For the visualisation, we searched and marked the cases for indications that the victims were in a psychologically exceptional situation. We were also interested in shootings inside and outside buildings, but this could not always be reconstructed.
Our case descriptions have only become more comprehensive over the years. For example, the gender of those killed is often left open until 1982. In the new overview, we have added online sources from the turn of the millennium onwards. References to earlier events can be found in our newspaper archive, which we are happy to provide access to on request.
Death by Taser
Since 2021, we have also been collecting deaths caused by police use of Tasers (technically “electro-pulse distance weapons”). Until a few years ago, only special units were equipped with them. In some federal states this has already been extended to “closed units” of the state police (Bavaria), in others the devices are part of the “basic equipment” of several police headquarters (North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Saarland). In Rhineland-Palatinate, allegedly “every patrol car” has a Taser on board.
We present the Taser statistics separately, because electric shocks lead to significantly different causes of death than ammunition from firearms. Victims die of cardiac or circulatory arrest, organ failure or they choke on vomit. Our list shows that so far almost all victims are tased inside buildings. For all those killed, the press reports suggest a psychologically exceptional situation, or drug use.
The articlewas published in the printed edition of the magazine Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP. Issue 127 “Police Law – Dissolution of Limits and Protest” can be ordered here.