About 3300 victims participated in a study on excessive violence by police officers. The violence workers also report on their own assaults.
It is mainly male police officers up to 30 years of age who use excessive force on duty. Those affected are also predominantly male and on average 26 years old. An exception are demonstrations or political actions, where the proportion of women affected by police violence is 36 per cent. These are the main findings of the research project “Assault and battery by police in office” (KviAPol) in Germany. On Tuesday, the drivers of the project, which is now based at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main, presented their final report.
The findings presented in KviAPol shed light on the so-called dark field of police assaults, i.e. cases that have not become known and have not been denounced. Under the direction of Tobias Singelnstein, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Law, the researchers Laila Abdul-Rahman, Hannah Espín Grau and Luise Klaus surveyed more than 3,300 participants online and conducted more than 60 qualitative interviews with members of the police and judiciary, victim counselling centres and lawyers.
Most of those affected suffered police violence in various forms, with almost two-thirds reporting beatings as well as punches. At football matches and other large-scale events, the police used pepper spray to a similar extent. Outside of such major events, 62 per cent of those affected complain of inappropriate restraints and fixations. 19 per cent of all respondents report serious injuries, including to joints and sensory organs. The more severe the injuries, the more severe the psychological consequences were, they added. 16 percent of the participants refer to a migration background. Most of the cases involving this group of people occurred during police checks and conflicts to which officers were called.
In interviews, some of the police officers also admit to the existence of unauthorised means of intervention. “We have self-turned, what are they called, like Japanese massage sticks,” reports a police executive. Attached to a ribbon in the sleeve, the device, built by a colleague with a talent for handicrafts, was used in unobserved moments to inflict great pain on certain parts of the victims’ bodies.
Both the officers and the victims of police violence emphasise that “disrespect and provocation” on the part of those later affected favoured escalations. This applies to escape attempts, they say. “If we catch you, we’ll hit you in the face like this, you little son of a bitch, you cowardly pig, the colleagues are already standing everywhere,” a female officer is said to have shouted after a man who had actually only made lunges after stumbling, but actually ran away in the face of the aggressive officers.
When the claimant finally gave up, a police officer hit him in the face with his fist and broke his nose bone. It is one of the few cases that a judge classified as “excessive”.
As a further escalating factor, the researchers describe male dominance behaviour or rival behaviour between officers and victims. Mostly, this is “located on the side of the (male) citizens”, the study says. However, a comparable effect can also be assumed for the police, where a certain understanding of masculinity is passed on as “cop culture”, they explain.
Similar narratives have an effect when female officers cannot assert themselves against non-white men. If they do not follow instructions, this is attributed to religion or culture. This leads to a racist “protective instinct” of male colleagues, which can lead to torture-like situations: After misogynistic insults, a security guard overhearing in the next room allegedly put a cardboard box over the head of a migrant-read man in custody and beat him. “You are here at a German police station and this is how everyone who does not behave properly here at a German police station is treated,” the perpetrator allegedly said.
In 2021, public prosecutors’ offices settled 2,790 preliminary proceedings for “unlawful use of force” and “suspension”, but often without consequences for the police perpetrators. In only two per cent of the cases were charges brought at all, 97 per cent of the criminal proceedings were dropped “due to lack of sufficient suspicion”, against conditions or due to insignificance.
However, the participants in the survey were also found to have a low willingness to report cases, according to the study. “A large proportion of suspected cases of unlawful use of force by the police remain in the dark. Only 14 per cent of those we surveyed stated that criminal proceedings had taken place in their case,” Tobias Singelnstein notes.
Often, the police officers suspected of the crime could not be identified; moreover, police witnesses showed solidarity when colleagues were reported, the study concludes on the reasons for impunity. Statements made by police officers are considered particularly credible by prosecutors and judges, which is also due to an “institutional proximity” between the police and the judiciary. In spite of the fact that the public prosecutor’s office has the authority to direct criminal proceedings against police officers, investigations are often conducted by colleagues, which lacks the necessary neutrality. Finally, it is not uncommon for officers to file counter charges.
Excessive use of force by the police, as recently seen on 1 May in Berlin and Hamburg, has been a topic of public debate for some time, but has hardly been systematically investigated in Germany, write the authors of the KviAPol study. Their study, which began in 2018, aims to fill this gap.
With regard to the evaluation of police violence in society and the judiciary, the police’s interpretation is particularly assertive, the research team notes as a central result of the study. This documents the “particular power of definition of the police”. This is why, for example, independent control and complaints bodies for the police are needed, the researches explain.
The overall results of the different parts of the research project can be ordered as a book or downloaded for free.
Published in German in „nd“.