Berlin police must now wear personal identification on their uniforms, but many German officers say the requirement puts their lives at risk. Moises Mendoza reports.
Police officer Thomas S. says his job on the streets of southern Berlin is hard enough as it is.
So he’s angry that he’s now forced to wear an ID badge with his personnel number on it. It puts his life at risk, he says.
“Even as police officers we live completely openly in our private lives,” he told The Local this week. “I’m afraid criminals could track me down. You deal with the same people for years and they start to hate you personally.”
Although police officers in other western countries like the United States and Britain have been required to wear numbers or name tags for years, Berlin last month became the first German state to mandate their use among uniformed officers.
But the move, made in the face of stiff opposition from Germany’s two main police unions, has outraged officers such as Thomas S., who refused to offer his surname while talking to The Local. He and many of his colleagues consider it part of a nationwide trend that will erode police privacy.
Now the GdP police union is mobilizing its resources to fight the requirement. This week it said it was supporting officers who are filing a complaint with Berlin’s chief law enforcement officials. If that’s rejected, union officials said, further legal action is possible.
“There is no compromising on this,” said Detlef Herrmann, a GdP administrator based in Berlin, who believes the open display of officers’ names or personnel numbers poses unacceptable risk. “We want things to go back to the way they used to be.”
That would mean mandating Berlin’s roughly 13,000 police officers to provide their service numbers when demanded, but letting them decide on their own whether to wear ID badges all the time, he said.
Controversial or common sense?
The new ID requirement was announced by Berlin’s police superintendent in 2010 following long-standing demands from human rights groups like Amnesty International. Although officials initially said officers would have to wear tags displaying their last names, they eventually compromised, allowing just ID numbers.
After months of controversy, the tags were distributed to officers last month.
“For us it’s always been a necessary requirement,” said Joachim Rahmann, who researches police issues for Amnesty’s Germany branch. “We’ve identified numerous cases in which a lack of identification hindered investigation of police abuses.”
Amnesty’s latest report on police practices in Germany points to a 2010 study by the Berlin’s Free University that found mandatory police IDs could have helped identify perpetrators in at least 10 percent of investigations into police brutality that later had to be terminated.
The GdP says that while that could be true, such mandates may be a violation of Germany’s strict privacy laws and could put police officers in great danger.
Rahmann said that there’s been no evidence of increased danger for police or their families in countries where officers are required to wear IDs.
But Hermann argued that comparing Germany with countries like the United States is akin to dealing with apples and oranges.
“Germany society is very different,” he said. “For one thing, in the US, there is much more respect for police.”
The proof is in the abuse police officers already face even though their names aren’t known publicly, said the union, pointing to cases of German officers’ family members being phoned and verbally harassed.
Debate goes national
The controversy in Berlin has spurred intense debate about police name tag requirements across Germany.
The state of Brandenburg recently announced it would require officers to wear ID by 2013.
But other states, and the federal police, have responded more cautiously, with Saxony-Anhalt’s premier even comparing mandatory police IDs to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis. National officials have said there are no plans to require federal officers to wear name tags.
In an interview with The Local, a Berlin police spokesman suggested the entire controversy may be much ado about nothing.
“Wearing identification is a form of customer service,” said spokesman Florian Nath. “It doesn’t matter if officers don't want to. They have to wear it anyway.”
But Thomas S. said officers provide service that’s good enough already.
He said the ID requirement, despite the fact he doesn’t have to display his name, is an attack on his personal safety.
“I'm afraid,” he said. “We deal daily with criminals and people who want to hurt us.”