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Police officers riled by new ID requirement

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 officers riled by new ID requirement
Photo: DPA

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.”

Moises Mendoza

[email protected]

twitter.com/moisesdmendoza

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WILDFIRES

‘Unprecedented’: How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin’s Grunewald forest

An "unprecedented" fire broke out on Thursday around a German police munitions storage site in a Berlin forest. Here's how events unfolded and the reaction.

'Unprecedented': How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin's Grunewald forest

What happened?

Emergency services were called out after explosions were heard in the ‘Grunewald’ forest in western Berlin in the early hours of Thursday morning. 

It then emerged that a fire had broken out near a police munitions storage site, all on one of the hottest days of the year when temperatures were forecast to reach around 38C in the German capital. 

As explosions continued at the site, sending debris flying into the air, firefighters weren’t initially able to get near the flames to extinguish it. Emergency services set up a 1,000-metre safety zone around the area.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Berliner Feuerwehr

Later on Thursday afternoon, Berlin fire brigade spokesman Thomas Kirstein said the situation was “under control and there was no danger for Berliners” but that the fire was expected to last for some time.

No one has been hurt by the fires. Around 250 emergency workers were deployed to the site.

READ ALSO: Blasts ring out as forest fire rages in Berlin’s Grunewald

How was the fire being tackled?

The German army (Bundeswehr) was called in. They sent a tank aimed at evacuating munitions at the affected storage site as well as remote-controlled de-mining robots, while drones circled the air to assess the emergency.

Water cannons were also deployed around the safety zone to prevent the fire from spreading.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey interrupted her holiday to visit the scene, calling the events “unprecedented in the post-war history of Berlin”.

Giffey advised people in Berlin to close their windows but said the danger was minimal as there were no residential buildings within a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) radius and so no need to issue evacuation orders.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“It would be much more difficult if there were residential buildings nearby,” she said.

What caused the blaze?

That’s still unclear. Police say they are investigating what started the fire exactly. 

The store in question holds munitions uncovered by police, but also unexploded World War II-era ordnance which is regularly dug up during construction works.

Giffey said local authorities would “have to think about how to deal with this munitions site in the future and whether such a place is the right one in Berlin”.

Is Grunewald a popular site?

Very much so. The sprawling forest on the edge of Berlin is home to lots of hiking trails and is even near some popular lakes, such as the Krumme Lanke. It’s also near the Wannsee and Havel river. 

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin's Grunewald

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin’s Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Grafik | dpa-infografik GmbH

Authorities appealed for the public to avoid the forest, which is regularly visited by both locals and tourists.

Deutsche Bahn said regional and long-distance transport was disrupted due to the blaze.

A part of the Avus motorway between Spanischer Allee and Hüttenweg was also closed in both directions, as well as Kronprinzessinnenweg and Havelchaussee, according to the Berlin traffic centre.

Aren’t forest fires and strong heat causing problems elsewhere?

Yes. Authorities on Thursday said no firefighting choppers were available as they were already in use to calm forest fires in eastern Germany.

However, they also said the 1,000-metre safety zone applied to the air, so there was a limit to how useful it would be to drop water on the fire from above.

The German capital is rarely hit by forest fires, even though its 29,000 hectares of forests make it one of the greenest cities in the world.

Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, as well as parts of eastern Germany have for days been battling forest fires.

Parts of Germany were also recently hit by forest fires during heatwaves this summer. 

Temperatures were expected to climb as high as 40C across parts of Germany on Thursday. However, it is set to cool down on Friday and thunderstorms are set to sweep in from the west.

With reporting by AFP’s David COURBET

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