Government & Administration (2013)

Federal Police

The BigBrotherAward 2013 in the category “Government and Administration” goes to the Federal Police, represented by its president Dieter Romann, for police identity checks in which people are singled out of crowds on the basis of appearance (complexion or other biological attributes, ethnic origin, national background, religion, language) for identity verification and searches. This widespread screening practice is called “racial” or “ethnic profiling”; suspicious behaviour or objective evidence are not used as a basis for these checks.
Portraitaufnahme von Rolf Gössner.
Dr. Rolf Gössner, Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte (ILFM)

The BigBrotherAward 2013 in the category “Government and Administration” goes to the Federal Police, represented by its president Dieter Romann, for discriminatory and racist identity verification and personal searches in the course of identity checks without any given suspicion.

So what happened?

In December 2010, on his way from Kassel to Frankfurt, a 25-year old student of architecture is travelling on a crowded train when two uniformed officials rudely prompt him to identify himself. After not being given a reason for the check, he refuses, whereupon the policemen grab his backpack and start searching for his identity papers, only to find a bar of chocolate instead. They ask its owner, which they address informally, whether he has stolen it. Thereupon, they force him to go back with them to the federal police department in Kassel to verify his identity.

After experiencing this, the man, born and raised in Germany, takes the matter to the Koblenz Administrative Court to determine the unlawfulness of the physical and informational transgressions against him. He has been singled out and checked by federal police 10 times in two years. In court, one of the policemen frankly testified that the man, among the many travellers, had only been conspicuous because of his darker complexion which created the “suspicion” that he might have been an “illegal alien”. This practice corresponded with the situational awareness and relevant border-police experiences to the Federal Police Act – even more so as “illegal aliens” seemed to have travelled on this track section frequently and that there had been violations of the Residence Act.

The Administrative Court followed this line of argumentation and in February 2012 ruled “Racial Profiling” by police officers to be constitutional – granting a judicial blank cheque to a racial practice that the federal police admitted openly and defended as “effective”. This judgement contradicts the vote of the UN’s Human Rights Committee, which unequivocally declares such practices to be racist discrimination and therefore prohibited under international law. Article 3 of the German Constitution prohibits such discrimination as well.

Identity checks without any suspicions – also called “Schleierfahndung” (veiled searches) – may be legal in German police laws, but their constitutionality is highly disputed. They are seen as compensation for the abolished borders within Europe. The shift of border controls to the interior of a country has been criticised by the EU Commission as “covert border controls”, which implies a violation of the Schengen Agreement. On top of this, the practise has proven itself to be a gateway for discriminatory practices which make use of racist selection of attributes and is an integral part of repressive policies against foreigners and asylum seekers.

There has actually been an increase in complaints by travellers who felt treated with a racist attitude by the Federal Police. According to “Spiegel” (2/2013) and “Freitag” (7 Feb 2013), many victims and witnesses repeatedly complain about the Federal Police discriminating against people because of their skin colour or origin – in trains, at train stations, airports and highways, in most cases to no effect. Furthermore, a 2010 study by the EU Agency of Fundamental Rights substantiates these everyday experiences of many black people and People of Colour, according to which the rate at which the police checks people with apparent migratory background is above average.

The plaintiff in this case appealed to the Higher Administrative Court of Rhineland-Palatinate against the shocking ruling of the Administrative Court, The higher court ruled differently and found the practice to be unconstitutional. In their judgement from October 2012, the judges decided that these practices violated the principle of non-discrimination. A representative of the Federal Police reluctantly apologised to the plaintiff, so that the people involved in the proceedings could lay the case to rest.

So is everything alright now? Unfortunately, no: neither will racist sentiments and patterns disappear from many police officers’ minds, nor will the discriminating and arbitrary practices be altered. The police union’s statement that deemed the Higher Administrative Court’s decision “impractical” showcases how internalised these practices are. “You can once again see”, criticises the union’s federal chairman, “that the courts engage in aesthetic administration of justice instead of looking towards everyday practice.” Sure enough, the aesthetes in judge’s gowns can be quite a nuisance in the tough life of a policeman. Such reactions prove that racist patterns of thought go beyond the realm of the Federal Police and are commonplace within the safety authorities as well, which why one could rightly call this “institutional racism”.

So why, some may ask, is this even relevant to the BigBrotherAwards? This is not about the cross linking of mega data packages and tools that enable people to snoop around in private data, insidious software or international treaties between control-trolls who want the best for us, or rather from us: our data and our money. No, this is about an issue of legal policy, of human rights, with directly discriminating effects on the right to informational self-determination of people who become the target of racially motivated police checks and manhunts. They have to endure police controls and personal searches, and disclose their identity and consequently their personal data – often several times in sequence. Without specific evidence, without any suspicion. They fit into the police’s scheme exclusively because they have a different hair colour or complexion, or just look “alien”, “foreign” or like Muslims.

Of course, even with a multitude of relevant cases and complaints it would not be right to accuse all 40,000 employees of the Federal Police or all police forces as a whole of institutional racism. However, there is more disturbing evidence beyond racial profiling: the disproportionate police violence towards migrants and one-sided investigations in cases of violence connected to neo-Nazis. For more than a decade now, security authorities have not been able to track down the right-wing extremists responsible for the NSU murders – instead, the victims of the so called “Döner murders” and their families were put under suspicion by a special commission (“Soko Bosporus”) in an outright racist manner. In extreme cases, some police officers have been identified as members of Ku-Klux-Klan or other neo-Nazi groups.

Since 9/11, even the state-run fight against terrorism shows features of discrimination, as migrants are declared to be an increased security risk, put under general suspicion and hence are made subjects of a rigid system of surveillance. In this context, the case of specific tracing of “Islamic sleeper agents” should be remembered. This kind of profiling still existed in the CDU/FDP-governed Lower Saxony in 2012: a check list in a brochure of the Authority for the “Protection” of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz, the state’s domestic intelligence agency) was supposed to help identify young Muslims in danger of succumbing to “extreme Islamism”. The listed “radicalisation criteria” included “weight loss due to changed dietary habits”, “long trips to countries with a Muslim majority”, “genuine fascination with life after death”, sudden wealth or debts. The brochure states that whoever notices these “suspicious” deviations from the norm should contact security authorities in order to exchange information about that person – practically a call for denunciation.

Bi-national marriages are subjected to embarrassing investigations of privacy as well: “What was the weather like on your wedding day? What kind of seating furniture do you use in your living room? How often do you visit religious institutions? Which ones do you visit and when? Do you have any pet name for your spouse? When was the last time you and your spouse spent an evening out? Where? What did you eat yesterday? What is your favourite dish and what is your spouse’s? On which side of the marital bed do you sleep? Which movies do you like best and which ones does your spouse prefer? Does he like to read? If so, what?”

This is just a selection of a catalogue of 115 questions used by the authorities of Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin in interviews that are conducted individually with each partner of a bi-national marriage – to detect possible contradictions that could attest a “fake marriage”. Through this attack on the very core of privacy of the affected people, personality profiles can be constructed – in violation of the basic right to informational self-determination. If contradictions are detected, the affected persons is even in danger of becoming a victim to drastic measures such as apartment searches.

Now back to our winner, the Federal Police, which in the meantime campaigns for “respect!”, and using the order “no place for racism” tries to banish racism from the realms of society. At least they accepted a banner with that slogan from an anti-racism initiative last year, and are now using it as decoration. Against the background of the public discussion regarding “racial profiling” and transgressions by police officers, the Federal Police wants to “publicly promote a clear signal against racism and intolerance”, as is written on its homepage. A welcome move of self-criticism or just sweet talk?

Instead of using trite advertising stunts, the police should introduce an obligatory program to combat racism, and employ more citizens with a migration background. Legislators are called upon to forbid identity checks based on appearance and establish independent control and complaints boards. Otherwise, nothing will change for the better.

Congratulations for your BigBrotherAward 2013, Federal Police, and get well soon!


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Portraitaufnahme von Rolf Gössner.
Dr. Rolf Gössner, Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte (ILFM)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

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