Lessons from German Policing

Confronting History
The German Polizei provide a valuable blueprint for American police reform (Pixabay/Markus Spiske).

Recently, a friend emailed to report on changes that his city—Cambridge, Massachusetts—was considering for its police force. He confessed he was “coming around” to the idea that “the authority of police to use lethal force fundamentally undermines engaging with and supporting communities,” and that “abolition” of the police—a word he said he used consciously, for its historical echo—was the best option.

In the months since the killing of George Floyd, Americans have reached an uneasy stasis in the policing wars, with police unions and elected officials trading insults, a specious “law and order” president fanning the flames, and the inchoate movement to “defund the police” continuing in uncertain form. To my mind, “defund the police” is a crowd-pleasing slogan that can’t possibly deliver what it promises. What is really needed is to reform the police. But activists view that word with mistrust, disappointed by past failures; presumably they deploy a more provocative term in the hope that threatening to end policing will increase the chances of actually changing it.

Whatever the point and pedigree of the phrase, the experience of the so-called autonomous zone in Seattle reminds us that policing in some form is necessary, as do the ongoing travails of cities where the murder rate has risen dramatically—and the voices of people of color who live in those communities and who overwhelmingly do not support the push to abolish policing. What is needed is not no police force, but a different one.

For my part, experiences years ago in another country inform my sense of an approach to policing that could help us here and now. In recent weeks, I’ve found myself recalling my positive impressions of the Polizei in Germany, where I lived in the 1990s. To be sure, many young and middle-aged Germans back then possessed an abiding mistrust of “die Bullen”—a mistrust you could trace to 1968 and the clashes between students and police. To many people those clashes emblemized state power run amok. Yet the reality of policing in Germany belies the notion of the out-of-control cop—and presents, to an American, an instructive model.

In the Rhine city where I lived, I played noontime chess in the park with a group of elderly men. They were all former Wehrmacht soldiers, and we had long conversations about World War II, Hitler, and the Holocaust. Also at the park was a group of Pennern—bums, drunks—who hung out around benches beneath a pergola near the chess area. They were a motley crew, tattooed, unhealthy, rowdy. One day, one of them was especially drunk and unruly, cursing at passersby. The Polizei arrived. The man was obstreperous. They cautioned him and he belligerently waved them away, screaming profanity. Uh-oh, I thought, here we go.

Yet the situation didn’t escalate. Instead of coming down hard on him, the police talked to him, politely and firmly. Did he have a home address? Was he on any medication? Where was he spending the night? Might they help him get somewhere? The whole time, he was threatening and thrashing around. In the United States, the police wouldn’t have needed anything else to arrest him. But the German cops didn’t want to do that. Instead, they spoke encouragingly, quietly suggesting some institutional resources for him. As an American, I was struck by their flexibility, their patience, and their helpfulness. I remember thinking, These guys sound more like social workers than like cops. It was clear that while they could arrest him, they felt that doing so would constitute a professional defeat. It was a last recourse, if every other tool in the toolkit failed. And they had a lot of tools in their kit.

My second exemplary memory of policing in Germany traces to Berlin and a pretty street corner in Charlottenburg. Lunchtime, a warm spring day, two adjacent cafés providing outdoor seating for maybe 150 people. A green-and-white police car pulled up and parked. Two cops started wending their way through the tables, questioning people. Wow, I thought, they must have a lead on a suspect. Soon enough, they confronted a guy at a table near ours. He stood up. He was nodding and saying, yes, he did drive a VW Cabrio with a particular license plate. I craned my neck to hear what the police wanted.

Sie haben Ihre Schlüssel im Auto gelassen,” was what I heard.

He had left his keys in the ignition, and the cops had noticed. It was a humorous inversion of a Nazi trope—the Gestapo searching through a crowd, looking for someone, pulling him out...and handing him his car keys!

The German model...places mediation, problem-solving, and diplomacy first—and intimidation, arrest, and the use of force last.

Taken together, these two incidents reveal priorities and approaches that distinguish the German model from our own, a kind of policing that places mediation, problem-solving, and diplomacy first—and intimidation, arrest, and the use of force last.

The roots of German policing, as Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Eddy wrote in the New York Times in June, trace to the reconstruction period after World War II, when Allied occupying forces and the new postwar German leadership sought to “demilitarize and civilize” the police as a way of remedying the Nazi-era corruption of policing. Seventy years later, Bennhold and Eddy observe, “that early ambition of demilitarization has morphed into a broad-based strategy of de-escalation that has become the bedrock of modern German policing.”

De-escalation means adopting more yielding protocols in dealing with citizens in problem situations. These “soft” protocols—that social-work aspect I observed—are a basic part of Polizei training. “The bedrock of public safety in Germany is a strategy of communication and de-escalation,” Bennhold and Eddy write. And there’s not only different training, but a lot more of it. In the United States, police academy training can last as little as ten weeks, and almost never more than six months. In Germany, the minimum duration of a police academy is two-and-a-half years. And before that even begins, applicants face a battery of personality and intelligence tests designed to root out those likely to be overly aggressive on the job.

Beyond this, there’s a crucial larger dimension to police academy training. Along with learning how to use firearms and make arrests, cadets also study law, ethics, and history, engaging with a rigorous civics curriculum. The practical daily realities of being a Polizist are examined against a historical and political backdrop—specifically, the abuse of police power under fascism and its role in the Nazi persecution, exploitation, and mass killing of marginalized peoples. In Berlin, every police academy student tours a former concentration camp. Police trainees are shown Schindler’s List. Trips are made to Yad Vashem in Israel. As Bennhold and Eddy note, “Cadets are taught in unsparing detail about the shameful legacy of policing under the Nazis—and how it informs the mission and institution of policing today.”

 

That unsparing self-scrutiny is part of a broader societal effort, conducted over decades, to reckon with the sins of fascism. The effort features several German expressions used to address the nation’s burden of guilt. Wiedergutmachung (reparations, or “making good again,”) has comprised government payouts of nearly $100 billion to Holocaust survivors, while Vergangenheitsbewältigung—“overcoming the past” or “dealing with the past”—has denoted the ongoing efforts of professors, writers, journalists, and other public intellectuals to probe the reality and consequences of Nazism.

Germany’s way of dealing with its past includes a program of public memorialization that keeps the crimes of history in view and in the public mind. Berlin contains some of the most challenging commemorative art you’ll see anywhere: not only the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, its sea of obelisks dominating the city center, but the memorial to the Nazi bookburnings in Bebelplatz, a white room lined with empty shelves buried beneath the square, which you peer down into through a plexiglass window underfoot. It all seeks to foster what Germans call an Auseinandersetzung mit der Geschichte: a confrontation with history.

Over the course of seventy-five years, this confrontation wrought a wholesale retooling of the German outlook; in the postwar decades, not only did Germany drastically demilitarize, but it also fundamentally changed the political psyche of its citizens, the habits of aggressive nationalism gradually replaced by Toleranz and Pazifismus. As a result, it is hard to imagine Germans today indulging in the violently invidious judgments (of race, nation, or ethnicity) that cleared the space for genocide. To a student of German history—to anyone who looks back and registers the viciousness, arrogance, and casual brutality of the Nazi personality—the transformation can seem nothing less than miraculous. 

That same transformation informs the mission of the German Polizei and helps us imagine a similar change in American policing. How might that proceed? It would include accepting and teaching that American policing is tainted by its post–Civil War origins in maintaining racial hierarchies. And as the Germans did after World War II, Americans too should demilitarize our police, both in equipment (no more armored personnel carriers, flashbang grenades, etc.) and in personnel. The percentage of veterans among police is three-and-a-half times the proportion in the general U.S. population, and while we honor service in our armed forces, we should recognize that the training a soldier receives—for confronting and, if necessary, killing an armed enemy—may in basic ways be antithetical to the day-to-day task of maintaining public safety in a manner that serves our citizens.

Equally crucial is that larger, background dimension. Germany has built a culture of memory to honor victims of fascism, accept responsibility for their deaths, and maintain the collective awareness of mass transgression. Memorialization is conducted not merely via tourist destinations, but also through smaller and more inconspicuous installations. Thus, in addition to the colossal memorial in the center of Berlin, there are also the Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones”—small plaques that mark where Jews were disappeared.

Germany continues to offer a blueprint for charting a new course that engages, institutionally and individually, with the crimes and taints of history.

In Germany, police reform was situated squarely within this culture of memory. To do likewise, the United States would first have to accept responsibility for the millions of murders, tortures, and rapes inflicted upon enslaved people—and for the foundational role that forced labor played in creating the wealth of our nation. We are still far from doing this. The fact that for thirty years, a bill authorizing a study of reparations was introduced annually by Michigan representative John Conyers—and dismissed annually, without consideration—shows how remote these basic acknowledgments have remained. Imagine an American culture of memory to parallel the German one. Half of Times Square devoted to a Monument to the Murdered and Tortured Slaves. A stumbling-stone plaque everywhere a Black person was lynched. Such reminders would make people wince. Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have argued that part of the need for reparations, beyond material compensation, is to dismantle mass denial and have white Americans admit both the egregiousness of slavery and its direct link to the travails of African-Americans ever since. Truth-telling, responsibility, shame, and what Germans called a Schuldgefühl, a feeling of complicity: it hurts. But it is necessary. The late Austrian journalist Gitta Sereny called it “the healing wound,” the hurt of conscience that makes redemption possible.

Specific fixes for American policing, in other words, presuppose an overarching conception of American problems, in a forest-and-trees way. We can’t get one without the other. This is where the issues of policing, Black Lives Matter, reparations, the nature of public monuments, and the means and ends of state force all converge. Transforming policing will require more than improved training manuals; the German example suggests it will require an American Auseinandersetzung, a bracing, honest, and open-ended confrontation with our own history. And that requires a decisive break with that history. In Germany, such a break was sped up by total defeat in a world war. The retooling of the German national psyche began in May 1945, in the ruins of the nation’s bombed-out cities, at what Germans called Stunde Null—Zero Hour. Perhaps our own Zero Hour should have happened in 1865. It didn’t. Might it happen now?

 

Germany has changed from the place I knew a quarter-century ago, and the postwar mechanisms created to purge the toxins of fascism are being tested these days—by younger generations disconnected from Nazi atrocities; by a backlash against immigration and multiculturalism; and by an ominous mainstreaming of right-wing nationalism long exiled to the political fringe. Amid this new dynamic, the Polizei have had their failures. Newspapers this week reported a purge of more than two dozen officers who had shared neo-Nazi material in online chat groups.

But as the head of the German police union remarked, “Fighting against far-right extremism is the DNA of the [German] police.” For Americans passionately discussing law enforcement after George Floyd, Germany continues to offer a blueprint for charting a new course that engages, institutionally and individually, with the crimes and taints of history. American life in the age of the viral video has showcased these taints in the most flagrant way. We don’t know what was going on in Officer Derek Chauvin’s mind as he applied lethal force to George Floyd’s neck—and in the end, his intentions don’t much matter, up against the suggestive image of a white cop snuffing the life out of a Black man, and doing so at his seeming leisure. What disturbed most about the image was precisely this calm, business-as-usual quality. It conveyed a casual sadism, a routine pleasure in wielding power and dispensing pain, that seemed distinctly Nazi-like. Any German of a certain age would see that and instinctively shudder. We can’t go there again, would be the reaction.

A philosophy of policing rooted in de-escalation, mediation, peacemaking and problem-solving would dramatically reduce what we have come to call, blandly, “officer-involved shootings.” In 2018, German police killed eleven people; in the United States, with four times Germany’s population, police killed 1,098 people—a twenty-five-fold higher per-capita incidence of police shootings. To be sure, it helps Germany’s Polizei to be working in a country where the state reserves a monopoly on deadly weapons, and the reigning national mythology does not include cowboys, frontiersmen, renegades, shootouts, gangster worship, and all the rest. In a country armed to the teeth, our police forces will still need to have lethal force at their disposal. But they’ll have to see using it as the last recourse, the ultimate defeat.

And they will have to use it in a way that reflects an ingrained awareness of the historical, political, and racial context in which their policing takes place. How to foster and teach that instinctive shudder, that healing wound? Getting more tools in the toolkit involves more than just buying a few new tools. The whole apprenticeship in the trade has to change. That will cost money—a lot of it. Just as challenging will be the effort of our collective moral and social imagination. Are we up to it? Let’s hope so. Only a comprehensive transformation of our law enforcement will allow us to do justice to Faulkner’s adage that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”—while pursuing justice for all Americans.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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