Terror Response

A Reluctant Return to Boots on the Ground

Poller und Klötze – Weihnachtsmärkte rüsten auf
Return to the streets: Germany has increased its police presence in the wake of the Berlin attack. Herre two uniformed officers patrol a Munich Christmas market on Tuesday. Source: DPA

Since the 1960s and 1970s, an era of violent protest, kidnappings and politically motivated murders in Germany, the face of policing in Europe’s largest economy has been subtle, almost invisible. In most cities and towns, it’s unheard of to see uniformed police officers out walking a beat.

In some districts where the country’s radical left tend to congregate, such as Berlin’s multi-ethnic Kreuzberg neighborhood, it’s positively dangerous for a uniformed officer to appear alone. But two days after large-scale Islamic terrorism came to Germany, that is all about to change.

In the wake of the Berlin Christmas market attack that claimed 12 lives and injured 48 people, police and security officials now are ratcheting up the nation’s police presence, not just in Berlin, but at small towns and gatherings like Christmas markets across the country.

The city of Berlin is planning to install concrete pillars around many Christmas markets. Andreas Geisel, the interior minister, promised more police in the German capital plus other security measures. But protecting every large gathering will be next to impossible. This week alone there are 60 Christmas markets in Berlin, most on squares or streets around the city.

But traditional concerns about displays of martial power have taken a back seat to concerns about personal security, after a year of four, small-scale terror attacks and a mass assault on women last New Year’s Eve in Cologne by men who entered the country as refugees.

“I believe that the majority of Germans will accept this higher level of police presence,’’ said Rafael Behr, a criminologist and sociologist at the Hamburg Police Academy. “I think that most people recognize that, for the time being at least, we are living in a new era of heightened risk.’’

In the wake of the Berlin attack, the changes are coming rapidly.

Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet decided to expand the level of video surveilliance, including the use of face-recognition software, in public places such as sport stadiums and shopping malls across the country.

Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister, said the government will even propose changes to strict data privacy laws to enable the greater surveillance, which in itself is another taboo-break in a country that fought Google’s Street-View photographic archiving of streetfronts.

Already in Berlin, more police are being seen on the streets.

Mr. Geisel, the Berlin interior minister, told daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, the capital had accepted the federal government’s offer of more police. The number of officers will be raised at airports and train stations, and at events like tonight’s soccer match in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium between Hertha and Darmstadt.

The show of force – in a country once allergic to mass gatherings of armed authority — is a break with tradition, experts said, and will be controversial. But in the current climate, the mood has swung toward more law and order.

“Now, both politicians and the wider public want to see more police,” said Michael Zielasko, a spokesman for Germany’s GdP police union, which represents most of the country’s roughly 260,000-person federal force.

The show of force – in a country acutely aware of its 20th century history that tends to be allergic to mass gatherings of armed authority -- is a break with tradition.

That was once the case back in the 1970s, when confronted with terror by the Red Army Faction group, Germany drastically raised its police presence as leading politicians and bankers were kidnapped, ransomed and murdered.

Mr. Behr, the Hamburg police expert, said Germans learned to accept a heightened police presence back then, although the decade was wracked by often-violent standoffs between liberals against conservatives over issues like the Vietnam War and the stationing of U.S. nuclear missles in Germany.

“Many people younger than 40 don’t remember this anymore,’’ Mr. Behr said.

But perhaps soon, many will experience it again. Even in small German villages far removed from the carnage in Berlin, local law enforcement are now making plans to double up on shifts, call in officers from vacation and reorient supervision to a higher-risk level.

In Nordhorn, Lingen und Meppen, small towns in northwest Germany just a few kilometers from the Dutch border, police presence at local Christmas markets will be “visibly’’ increased.

“We want everyone by our presence to have a good feeling,’’ Dennis Dickebohm, a police spokesman, told the Grafschafter Nachrichten, the local newspaper. So far however, the extra officers will brandish no more than their standard-issue service revolvers and badges.

State ministers on Tuesday considered -- but decided against -- banning all Christmas markets in Germany after the Berlin attack.

Mr. Dickebohm told the newspaper the heightened presence at Christmas markets won’t include bullet-proof vests or machine guns. But in nearby Münster, police are carrying machine guns and wearing vests.

Boris Pistorious, the interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony, where Münster and the other communities are located, said German state police chiefs considered but ruled out closing Christmas markets across the country in the aftermath of the Berlin attack.

During a conference call of state interior ministers on Tuesday, officials decided closing markets would send the wrong signals to Germans and to terrorists, who would have interpreted the reaction as a victory.

“One reaction would have definitely been wrong: To close the Christmas markets,‘‘ Mr. Pistorious told the Grafschater Nachrichten. “Then, the cowardly terrorists would have achieved their goal.‘‘

In a sense, Germany has no choice but to follow the lead of the United States, Britain, France and other victims of terror by ramping up security. But the merits of more officers, and shows of heavy weaponry, are debatable, and are primarily effective for their psychologically calming effect on the public.

Mr. Zielasko, the police union spokesman, said the number of police officers shrunk in Germany by about 16,000 from 1998 through 2015, although actual reductions because of reorganizations are hard to quantify accurately.

“The events of last New Year’s eve in Cologne have clearly changed the mood,” Mr. Zielasko said.

The German Interior Ministry wants to add 5,000 police officers to the federal force, but that won’t be easy, Mr. Zielasko told Handelsblatt Global: “Because of the time required to train a police officer, it will take at least three years until the additional forces start patrolling the streets.”

Even then, said Mr. Behr, the Hamburg police expert, greater deployments of officers don’t necessarily equate to greater security. IS and other terrorists could simply react to the greater presences and choose new, softer targets, he said. Statistically, Mr. Behr said, most Germans are more likely to die from a heart attack or a simple accident, than falling victim to terrorism.

“I think we live in a post-factual era right now where none of the facts seem to matter,’’ he said. “I like to call this Fear 2.0.’’ In this new era, regardless of the facts, the new reality will include many more police boots on the ground.


Kevin O’Brien is the editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach him: obrien@handelsblatt.com




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