The decision of the Federal Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, to call off an investigation into racial profiling in the police is drawing anger and criticisms not only of migrant associations but also political parties, including the junior governing coalition partner SPD.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests in Germany, questions are being raised about racism in the country’s institutions, especially in the police.
Members of minority groups, especially Black people, have long been complaining that they are singled out for identity check in public transport or in the streets by the police, which means that they’re racially profiled. People of African descent also often complain of being disrespected by the law enforcers. In fact, there have been many cases of police brutalising Black people, several of whom died in the past.
Migrant organisations and even members of the federal parliament, across party lines, therefore called on government to beam its searchlight on racism in institutions, such as public service and police. The objective of such a focus is to find out if and how much these institutions are biased against people with a migration background.
Ostensibly in response to the calls, the federal interior ministry announced in mid-June that it would conduct a nation-wide study into racial profiling by the police.
“In order to enable a fact-based assessment, a joint state-federal study on racial profiling is planned in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Justice,” a spokesman of Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had said.
The announcement of the planned investigation was widely greeted by migrant organisations in the country.
Suddenly, the ministry announced on Sunday (5 July) that it had abandoned the plan, claiming that since racial profiling was prohibited and hence there was no need to conduct any studies into the problem.
The chairman of The African Network of Germany (TANG), Dr Sylvie Nantcha, reacting to the decision, said any reference to the ban on racial profiling as a justification for stopping the planned probe ignored the issue at stake.
“Then, there should be no studies into tax evasion, child sexual abuse or violent crime, because all of these are also prohibited,” she said.
“The network receives feedback almost daily from Black people who have the impression that they have been checked solely because of their skin colour,” Dr Nantcha reported.
Reliable data are needed to “openly, seriously and without the apportionment of blame” deal with the issue, she added. “Such a study is also important for the trust of people of African origin in the police.”
Tahir Della, spokesman for the Initiative of Black People in Germany (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland or ISD), said racial profiling could have deadly consequences, pointing to the premeditated murders of immigrants by the right-wing extremist National Socialist Underground NSU.
Speaking to DW, Della said the murders, perpetrated between 2000 and 2007 throughout Germany leaving ten people dead and one wounded, happened partly because the police pursued immigrants as murder suspects, rather than the far-right. “Because of the powers the police have, racist thinking and norms can lead to people dying,” he added.
The controversial decision to call off the probe into racial profiling by the police has also been criticised by leading members of the SPD, junior coalition partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD), for example, disagreed with the decision of her cabinet colleague. “This is not about putting anyone under general suspicion,” she said in an interview with public broadcaster ARD. The point was to “establish the facts and to know where we stand and how we can counter it.”
Ms Lambrecht said she would raise the issue with Seehofer while accepting that the ultimate decision lied with the interior ministry.
“It would be best if a comprehensive investigation came to the conclusion that there is no cause for concern,” said SPD chairman Norbert Walter-Borjans, in an interview with the WELT. “But Seehofer’s approach is: ‘Don’t look so that you don’t see anything.’ But just looking closely and, in justified cases, reacting quickly will ensure the high reputation that our constitutional state and our security agencies enjoy.”
The opposition parties have also harshly criticised the cancellation of the study. “Seehofer prevents the factual debate about racism in the police,” said Green Party leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt. To support those who carried out their duties responsibly, one had to know where to take countermeasures, she opined. “Horst Seehofer does the police a disservice because the trenches only deepen without a solid database.”
In contrast, Seehofer has received support from its own ranks and the right-wing extremist AfD.
“There is no need for a study on racial profiling. We have a clear legal position: racial profiling is prohibited,” said CDUs domestic affairs spokesman, Mathias Middelberg. “The general suspicion that the German police are structurally racist is simply absurd.”
Gottfried Curio, spokesman for the AfD parliamentary group, said the police had to be protected from a “study that was expected to be ideological from the start”. Otherwise, police officers could be placed under the general suspicion of racism and inhibited from “controlling foreigners and arresting them if necessary”.
However, the chairman of the Federation of German Criminal Investigation Officers, a police trade union, did not toe that line of argument. “Seehofer’s reason why there should be no study is embarrassing,” Sebastian Fiedler told the WELT.
“The Minister of the Interior may want to emphasize his trust in the police with his decision – but that won’t work” because the police are dependent on the trust of all, he said.
Racial injustice is a long and historical problem and it deeply affects many institutions, including the police, where it manifests in different forms including racial profiling. A study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2017, found that 14 percent of people of African descent surveyed attributed their encounter with the police in the preceding five years to their ethnic identity. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance also recommended a study into racial profiling in Germany in its report of 2019.