Vice-versa: Racial profiling in Germany

Police on patrol in Cologne. [Shutterstock]

Germany and the EU: How do they cooperate? Where do their approaches conflict and where are their interests aligned? EURACTIV Germany’s new Vice-Versa series continues to take a look at one issue from both a European and federal government perspective.

On New Year’s Eve, police ranks were bolstered in the German city of Cologne and more than one hundred North African men were rounded up and checked, in an effort to prevent a repeat of the 2015 Cologne attacks.

Critics say this was nothing short of racial profiling and that people were targeted purely because of their ethnicity. German anti-discrimination legislation, as well as the European Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits any form of discrimination that is based on race or social background.

EURACTIV Germany spoke to German MEP Axel Voss (CDU), a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), and Christopher Lauer, who from 2009 to 2014 was a member of the Pirate Party and who is now with the SPD.

Christopher Lauer

Is police action like what we saw on New Year’s Eve compatible with national and European laws on discrimination?

No. Checks based on nationality are in breach of Article 3 of our Constitution and of EU law.  When there is a real threat and a description of the suspect is available, then the police can obviously check people. This description is never based on nationality of course.

New information shows how ineffective checking people based on their appearance actually is. According to the Cologne police, around 50 of the people checked were German, and many were Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan. Only around 30 were from the Maghreb countries.

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The attacks carried out against women, in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, are still reverberating across Europe, auguring for more resentment against immigrants, and eroding the remnants of multicultural attitudes. The EURACTIV network reports.

Where are the limits?

The police must always act to counter a threat or if a specific risk is imminent. In Cologne, the danger was less tangible. The police wanted to prevent any trouble by checking people three or even four times. I can understand their motivation. But even though there was an abstract threat, which last year was very real, this does not justify breaking our fundamental rules. When there is a real risk, for example, if people are intoxicated or if large groups of men are showing aggressive behaviour, then controls can be made independent of nationality.

The police and parts of the public always react badly to this form of criticism. That’s unfortunate. Every profession has its critics of course and the police are no exception. Indeed, we are fortunate that we do not have to go into the street armed for protection, like in Afghanistan currently. We are all grateful to the police for that. But criticisms still have to be made. We only have to look at the US to see how easily a state can topple.

The EU, the national government… who is responsible?

Public criticism of police operations must be allowed. It’s not personal criticism of officers, rather the way organisation and planning is carried out. There needs to be more critical self-examination as well.

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Axel Voss

Is what the police did on New Year’s Eve in Cologne justifiable?

The principle of non-discrimination is enshrined in Article 21 of the EU’s charter of rights. But the charter also guarantees a “right to freedom and security” in Article 6.

From what I have garnered from media reports, the Cologne police acted based on the realities at the time and struck a balance between both fundamental rights. Especially in light of what happened on New Year’s Eve in 2015.

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As the world continues the fight against terrorism, the powers-that-be have to include civil society in their decision-making process, so that efficient and fair policies can be formulated, writes Claire Fernandez.

Where are the limits, though?

I don’t think we can make sweeping statements on this. It has to be on an individual basis, depending on the risk of the situation at the time.

For example, if a group of extreme-right skinheads or hooligans gathered in one place, then the police would be within their rights to deal with what would be predominantly German-looking people. Quite rightly, no one would accuse the authorities of acting on racial discrimination.

Should the EU do more to counter racial profiling?

As I said, it is all about acting based on reality. I don’t think that the EU is the right level to evaluate individual cases of police work.

The EU, of course, should act if a member state is violating the rule of law, though.

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The German government sees no reason to take seriously allegations of institutional racism in public agencies and the police force. Civil rights advocates are growing increasingly alarmed. Tagesspiegel reports.

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