It took days for the truth about sexual assaults on New Year in Cologne to emerge last year, after Cologne police first issued a police report saying that the night had passed peacefully.
When it later became clear that over 1,000 women had been sexually assaulted, robbed or both, reportedly by men of North African origin, police were accused of silencing the crimes in order to prevent a public debate on the government’s refugee policies.
Within days the police chief of Germany’s fourth largest city was forced to resign, as the mayor accused him of not fully informing her about the crimes.
Later investigations also revealed that police had misled the public about the number of officers they had on duty that night.
In December Cologne police assured a concerned public that there would be no repeat of the sexual assaults and thefts at this year’s festivities.
A police presence ten times that of 2016 was put in place to ensure stability.
But despite the evening passing relatively peacefully, a heated public debate has again erupted. This time though, the attacks are coming from the left of the political spectrum, with the police being accused of racism in their detention policies.
Particularly, a police tweet sent at 11.08pm noting that hundreds of “Nafris” – an abbreviation for North Africans – had been checked by officers, has caused consternation.
— Polizei NRW K (@polizei_nrw_k) December 31, 2016
In total police handed out over 900 orders to young men, mainly North Africans, prohibiting them from entering the area around the cathedral.
Police say that many of the men were suspects in crimes committed last year and that telephone intercepts led them to believe they again had plans to commit crimes in the area.
But criticism of the term Nafri has been furious.
Simone Peter, leader of the Green Party, described it as “derogatory” and claimed the police had acted illegally by racially profiling people attending the festivities.
Peter’s party colleague Volker Beck pointed out to the Rheinische Post that arresting people based on ethnicity and not on concrete suspicion of a crime would constitute a breach of the UN’s anti-racism convention.
On Monday Cologne’s police chief admitted that his force should have never tweeted the term.
“I find it very unfortunate that the term was used in this situation,” Jürgen Mathies told broadcaster WDR. “I regret it immensely.”
But he went on to say that a form of profiling was necessary based on their experience the previous year.
“We had a clear idea of who we should be checking. It wasn’t gray-haired old men or blond young women.”
Mathies also explained that the term Nafri has been in use for a longer period of time as internal police jargon.
Authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Cologne is the largest city, have previously published statistics showing that citizens of the North African states of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco are more often reported for committing crimes than people from countries such as Syria.
Cologne police spokesman Wolfgang Baldes told Die Welt on Monday that for years the city has had problems with reports of crimes by men from North Africa, often accused of pick-pocketing in the town centre and aggressive behaviour towards the police when they are stopped.
After a Tunisian man drove a truck into a crowded Berlin Christmas market on December 19th, debate once again erupted about the three North African states and whether they should be designated safe countries of origin.
The government’s attempt to classify them as such, a status that would mean asylum would only be granted in exceptional circumstances, was blocked by the Green party last year due to fears about the human rights records in those countries.
Newspaper commentary on the identity checks in Cologne on New Year was also largely favourable towards the police.
“The high number of clearly aggressive young men, mainly from North Africa, who once again descended on Cologne, as well as Essen and Dortmund is scary,” the Westfalen Blatt wrote.
“This has nothing to do with stigmatizing an ethnicity and everything to do with a sober analysis of reality. No one has anything against North Africans who abide by German law.”
The Rheinische Post also said that the police “did only one thing – their duty”.
But the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) bemoaned the fact that it took the police 12 hours before they explained that they had evidence that the North Africans they detained were planning criminality.
Recent extensions of police powers give them the ability “to intervene in people's lives without proof – in these circumstances presumption of innocence no longer plays a role,” the newspaper warned.