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German study finds suspected cases of far-right extremism in police forces

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer listens during the presentation of a report on far-right extremism in the police forces. (Wolfgang Kumm/AFP/Getty Images)
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BERLIN — There are more than 370 suspected cases of right-wing extremism in Germany's police and security agencies, according to a government study released Tuesday. But experts said it papers over the true depth of the problem.

The report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV, Germany’s domestic security agency, surveyed police forces in the country’s 16 federal states for cases in which officers have been suspected of having far-right links over the past three years. State security agencies reported 319 suspected cases, and federal agencies reported 58.

The disclosure follows a string of far-right scandals that have embroiled Germany’s security forces, from right-wing chat groups sharing neo-Nazi content to a group of extremist doomsday preppers who hoarded ammunition ahead of “Day X.” Barely a week has passed without new revelations.

Last week, Berlin police said they were investigating 25 officers for being part of a chat group that shared racist jokes and far-right discussion, while the BfV said three of its employees responsible for monitoring far-right chat groups were being investigated for participating in them.

That followed the suspension of 29 officers in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia last month for sharing extremist images, including pictures of Adolf Hitler. Two weeks ago, the head of Germany’s military intelligence was forced to resign after an entire unit of the country’s special forces was dissolved because of far-right links.

The slew of incidents has made it difficult for German authorities to continue dismissing the problem as “individual cases,” and pressure has mounted on the Interior Ministry to address the issue.

But in presenting the report Tuesday, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said that while the cases already under investigation need closer examination, he would not put the other “99 percent” of employees of the country’s security agencies under suspicion. He has resisted calls for an independent study to examine police racism — calls that have grown alongside the proliferating scandals and the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Joachim Kersten, senior research professor in the Criminology Department of the German Police University, said that the report marks a step in the right direction but that more needs to be done, with Tuesday’s study essentially a roundup of known cases.

“They have to face the music, and unfortunately the music is a Nazi melody,” he said. Germany has not addressed the issue because of a “kind of pathological shame,” he added. “If shame just leads to covering up things and denying and looking the other way, it creates this kind of problem.”

He said that while there had been a middle-management and leadership problem with Nazism in the police in Germany in the 1960s and ’70s, now it is a problem in the rank and file.

Seehofer on Tuesday rejected accusations that there was a “structural racism” problem in the police. He said the focus should not be on the police alone but on all public offices. He said he would present a proposal to the cabinet for a more general study of racism in society.

When Saskia Esken, a leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, suggested in June that there might be “latent racism” in the police force, she faced fierce backlash, even among members of her own party. Seehofer described the prospect as “incomprehensible.”

The following month, he halted a study announced by the justice and interior ministries to investigate the use of racial profiling by German police, citing the fact that such profiling is legally forbidden.

Germany’s justice minister criticized his decision, saying that data and facts are needed to determine whether racial profiling is a problem. The head of the Association of German Criminal Police Officers has also said the study would help establish trust in the police.

While there may not be a structural problem with racism and extremism in the police, there is a “structural blocking of an investigation into racism,” said Rafael Behr, a criminologist and sociologist at the Hamburg Police Academy.

The data compiled from the state and federal authorities is “not a bad start,” Behr said, “but it would be disastrous if we stopped there.”

The central state of Hesse reported the most suspected cases with 59, followed by Berlin with 53 and North Rhine-Westphalia with 45. Most cases were linked to extremist chat groups, with a minority of officers suspected of having direct links to far-right organizations.

While the report focused on the police, it said that there were also 1,064 suspected cases in the German military in the three years until April 2020. Investigations in 550 cases are ongoing, while around 400 cases have been dropped.

Far-right attacks are on the rise in Germany more generally, with criminal cases growing by 9.7 percent in 2019 compared with a year earlier, the report said. On Sunday, a man with a shovel attacked a 26-year-old Jewish student outside a synagogue in Hamburg. He had a piece of paper in his pocket with a picture of a Swastika on it, according to German news reports.

Kersten said that there is a much larger “dark scene” within the police than the report illuminates, but also that it should not be forgotten that there are 250,000 other officers doing their jobs and protecting the community.

He said it was a positive signal that information from other police officers had unearthed the far-right chat group in Berlin. Previous chat groups had been stumbled upon when officers’ phones were confiscated during investigations of other incidents.

But that also probably means that there are more cases to follow, he said: “It’s just the beginning.”