It was a routine operation, a simple check and an escalation they could not have expected: A female police trainee and a male police officer, both killed with a shot to the head in Kusel in Rhineland-Palatinate, when they caught two poachers red-handed. "Anyone who submits an application to the police knows that you can be killed on duty," says the state chairwoman of the Rhineland-Palatinate police union (GdP), Sabrina Kunz, "but you push that far from you."
The danger of death, it slips with the years of service probably also for self-protection into the unconsciousness.
Every day policemen and policewomen in Germany risk their lives. They know it, they are prepared in training for it to end in death in the worst case scenario. This is rather rare, but assaults on police officers are not – the number has been increasing for years.
36.126 cases of "resistance to and assault on law enforcement officers and persons of the same rank" against a total of 69.466 policemen and policewomen were registered in 2019. On average, 200 officers are physically attacked every day, reports the Federal Criminal Police Office.
Violence against the police: when a routine operation escalates
In the past 15 years, six male and two female police officers have been fatally injured in the line of duty. The last time a police officer was killed in Rhineland-Palatinate was in 2010, when a special squad stormed the apartment of a Hells Angels member. On Monday, it was a plainclothes patrol that presumably struck a car parked on the side of the road. The two police officers, 24 and 29 years old, had no chance, they were literally executed according to previous findings.
"The case is a wake-up call, it shakes us to the core," says police officer Pierre Weingarten of the GdP’s Young Group. In 99 out of 100 cases, patrol checks went off without a hitch, says Weingarten. "There’s already an expectation that we don’t treat people like felons during normal checks," says the North Rhine-Westphalian. "We don’t want conditions here like in the U.S., where people are first pulled out of the car while the police have loaded the weapons."
Kunz also says police officers couldn’t assume they’d be in such a dangerous situation when they’re on such missions.
GdP: "No protective measure could have prevented her death"
In the police schools they are trained, they get ethics lessons, weapons training, operational training. But: "No training can be compared to reality," says Kunz. Especially the supposedly routine missions would hold a danger, because the officers never know what situation they will encounter. Is the person insightful, receptive to words? Or is there someone sitting in the car who is frustrated, irritable or even prone to violence??
The investigation into the fatal shooting in Kusel has not yet been completed, and it is still unclear what consequences the police will draw from it. But Kunz says: "I assume that the colleagues could not have been better trained or better equipped. No protective measure could have prevented her death."
This is also the view of Michael Denne, Police President of the Western Palatinate Police Department. "The question we all ask ourselves is what can be done differently, in training and concepts. I come to the conclusion in this case that nothing could have been done differently. This is not stupid or wrong. It’s an event owed solely to the criminal energy of two perpetrators." Also in the future this is not to be avoided.
Frustration and anger with the state leads to violence against police officers
For years, there has been an increase in violence against police officers. "We’ve noticed for ten, 15 years already that people approach police officers differently," Kunz says. "We are perceived differently by the population." Many people are frustrated, about their lives, their social rank, currently also about the Corona rules, of "multi-causal causes" speaks Kunz. "We policemen are then, also optically, quasi the contact persons for the state. When people need an outlet to vent, this is what happens to us."
Only a few hours after the crime in Kusel became known, the extent becomes apparent. During a traffic control in Hagen, a man said to police officers: "Something like this morning in Rhineland-Palatinate should happen to you much more often." Then the police officers would no longer act like "the kings of the world," according to a police statement.
Not an isolated case: there were also applauses for the perpetrators in social media, offers to help them escape. "This is a despicable development and contemptuous of humanity," Frank Gautsche, head of the Kaiserslautern criminal investigation department, said of the matter. These posts would be followed up just like those that mocked the victims.
Police officers on duty: The person in the uniform is no longer perceived as a human being
The GdP says it is working a lot on communication methods, on how language can de-escalate, so that banal situations in everyday life do not become life-threatening moments. But the inhibition thresholds for violence against state employees have recently dropped, he says. "The state is rejected in itself, and we as representatives then too," says Kunz.
The Corona pandemic has intensified the situation, the frustration is deep-seated, and you can see it in the way people treat each other – and the emergency services.
Weingarten speaks of a "brutalization of society". "The police are perceived as an extension of the state. The protest is not necessarily against the police, but against the policy. The person behind the uniform is not even noticed," he says. Police were a "bruiser of society". There are therefore campaigns to make the people who are in the uniforms more present and to show. To clarify: Someone is doing his job, what he was trained to do. He or she finds that possibly also straight wrong, nevertheless makes it. This is how respect should be restored.
Chief public prosecutor: law enforcement officers are sometimes met with blind hatred
The senior public prosecutor in Kaiserslautern, Udo Gehring, finds clear words. He experiences among the police "a culture of reason and a culture of politeness, as far as the relationship to the citizen is concerned. I can’t reconcile that with the blind hatred that the law enforcement agencies are sometimes met with."
He does not believe that the police provoke by their behavior, but: "I assume that this blind hatred, which has become a social problem, has another cause, which we must address."
Are the causes really frustration, loss of respect and a generally increased readiness to use violence?? Again and again, the police are accused of acting disproportionately. Making right-wing extremist chat groups known was not confidence-building. In addition, videos of police violence, of officers punching and kicking are circulating. Are these still isolated cases?
For years, there has been criticism of the way the police sometimes act at demonstrations: while "lateral thinkers" are sometimes allowed to march unchallenged – just last weekend, protesters stormed a psychiatric hospital in Leipzig – operations such as those at protests against Stuttgart 21, when water cannons were aimed at people’s faces, are unforgettable.
Police tactical decisions are not always comprehensible to everyone
"For outsiders, police tactical decisions are not always easy to understand," says Weingarten. One must consider the individual case. Sometimes it can make more sense to let a situation run its course in order to avoid a complete escalation. The line between "the police do nothing" and "the police are too tough" is narrow, he says. "It’s a balancing act in every case, because we know that a police decision can lead to the overturning of a situation," says the police officer.
It is clear to everyone: An action of the police often leads to reactions. "Then the police must face the criticism," says Weingarten. He pleads for more mutual understanding.
That the police use unreasonable force is something senior prosecutor Gehring has heard before. "We are investigating these incidents and have concluded that to a large extent the incidents are not provoked by the police, but are ideologically determined and directed against the state as such."But if such criticism spreads without foundation, "it can be dangerous" – especially if the inhibition threshold in a society is lowered anyway and the state is seen as an object of hatred.
Police report "unbelievable solidarity and sympathy"
In the case of Kusel, it was probably not hatred of police officers, not hatred of the state. Investigators assume that the two suspects wanted to cover up a crime: They had numerous illegally killed wild animals with them, at least one of the two is said to have illegally traded commercially with the poached meat.
Also because the motive seems so absurd – to kill two people to avoid a prison sentence of up to five years – the crime in Kusel is startling. As it were, as the violence grew in Germany, so did solidarity with the officers who are subjected to these attacks. "We are currently experiencing an incredible wave of solidarity and sympathy."There have been expressions of sympathy from private individuals as well as from organizations in Germany and throughout Europe.
A case that shows how low the inhibition threshold is
Pierre Weingarten has not experienced such an escalation himself, but a colleague was shot last year. This was also a normal vehicle check. The passenger suddenly grabbed a gun and shot specifically at the chest of the police officer. New bullet-proof vests have just been issued, because the police have been equipped with more equipment to fight terrorism.
The colleague, reports Weingarten, suffered only hematomas. Through pastoral care and offers of talks within the police force, he has been able to continue his professional career – he still drives patrols. Also in Kusel and Rhineland-Palatinate the colleagues of the killed police forces receive psychological and pastoral support, if they wish so.
A case like in Kusel is rare, but inevitable, experts agree. But the case also says something about the relationship between the police and the citizenry. Kunze demands that society deal with the potential for violence. "We are at a social point where we have to consider how we want to live. Do we want to come together again and adapt the social tone – or do we want to drift even further apart??"