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‘Anything but dramatic’: What experts say about Germany’s latest crime report

The headlines covering the latest national police statistics released on Monday focused on increases in violent crimes and the rise in suspects classified as refugees or undocumented immigrants. But what should we really take away from the report?

'Anything but dramatic': What experts say about Germany's latest crime report
File photo: DPA.

The report released by the Interior Ministry showed a slight increase in reported crimes last year over 2015, as well as spikes in homicide or murder, as well as rape and sexual assault.

As criminality and immigration have become an increasingly political issue in Germany and beyond, concern was also raised over the 52.7 percent increase in suspects classified as either refugees, asylum seekers or people illegally living in the country.

“This is nothing to sugarcoat,” said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, but he also emphasized that the vast majority of refugees do not commit crimes, and therefore the public must not cast general suspicion over all foreigners.

Police union GdP said that the increase in violent crimes gave reason to bolster police forces, with its leader calling for 20,000 more officers.

But is the report proof that Germany is getting more dangerous? Not quite, criminality experts told The Local.

‘Only a snippet’

First, it’s important to understand where the statistics come from. They reflect reports made by police, but before cases are brought to prosecutors and potentially trial. Therefore the figures only include information on suspects, and not on whether charges against them were eventually changed by prosecutors, or if they were ultimately convicted.

“The statistics are only a small snippet of what crimes were actually committed and it only shows what police did, not what developed further with prosecutors,” Ruhr-University Bochum criminology professor Tobias Singelnstein told The Local.

“They are not statistics so much about criminality, but rather they are statistics on police behaviour, or how the police operated in the past year.

“What segment of crime is shown depends on how the police operated, and in particular on the reports from the population. It also reflects how the reporting behavior of the public may have changed.”

A spokesman from the GdP police union also explained that police use the figures more as a point of reference than as a complete depiction of crimes committed.

“There are only two ways that police know about a crime: either it’s clear by itself and police observe it, or someone alerts police,” the spokesman said. “Anything else stays in the dark and has to be researched.”

This is another major factor to keep in mind: a huge number of crimes go unreported.

According to Singelnstein, there may be 100 million crimes actually committed in Germany, but last year just a little over 6 million were reported. The GdP spokesman also spoke of the unknown “dark figures”, and said that some estimate there could be ten times as many crimes taking place than are actually reported to police.

Criminal law and criminology professor Kirstin Drenkhahn explained to The Local that victims may also be less likely to report crimes when they know the person. In a small, close-knit community, for example, research shows that people may feel more inclined to work out a conflict between themselves than to go to police, she said.

“If you don’t know the person and they are a stranger, you can’t resort to other methods of conflict resolution,” the Free University of Berlin professor noted.

‘Foreign-looking’ suspects twice as likely to be reported

The ‘stranger’ factor may also play a role in why there was an increase in refugee or asylum seeker suspects reported. A recent survey by the Criminology Research Institute of Lower Saxony showed that just one in five teenagers who said they were victims of violent crimes brought it to the attention of police.

The survey further showed that ethnic German teens were twice as likely to report an attack on them if it had been carried out by someone with a migrant background than if it had been carried out by a German.

“It’s quite plausible that if you perceive someone to be a stranger, you might be more likely to report them,” Drenkhahn said.

Singelnstein further explained that “foreign-looking people are subject to more stringent social controls”.

“Also police are more sensitive to controlling these groups,” he added.

Other risk factors

Another consideration in explaining the increase in refugee or undocumented immigrant suspects is the demographics of the group: the refugee and asylum seeker population tends to be much more predominantly made up of young males, and young men are more often connected to crime, regardless of nationality.

“Males under 30 have higher prevalence in general of being found in these statistics as suspects all over the Western world, and if you have a specific subgroup where a large proportion fits these criteria, then you will have an elevated proportion of this subgroup in the statistics,” explains Drenkhahn.

Why young men are more likely to be suspects is another very complicated question to answer, she says.

“If you do crime and victim surveys for young people, you find that almost 100 percent have done something illegal, usually petty offences like smoking marijuana,” she explained.

“This has to do with growing out of crime, changing your living situation and some need longer to find a stable situation.”

She also noted that the difficult circumstances faced by recent asylum seekers upon arrival in Germany also play a role in whether they commit a crime.

“Especially when looking at the refugee population, you have to take into account that many people who would normally have high chances of gaining asylum can get lost in the system, and have to stay in very cramped living situations,” Drenkhahn added.

“It’s a very difficult  living situation, especially for young people.”

‘Anything but dramatic’

Another point made by the experts is that in fact, the number of reported crimes overall has not changed significantly in years.

The frequency rate of crimes in actually sank by about 0.5 percent, down from 7,797 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2015, to 7,755 crimes per 100,000 people in 2016. And when excluding crimes that related to immigration policy violations – such as illegal stay or entry – the overall number of crimes dropped by 0.7 percent.

Looking back over the years, the frequency rate has generally hovered between 7,500 and 8,000 crimes per 100,000, reaching a high of 8,337 per 100,000 residents in 1993.

“It is the same each year: the Interior Ministry publishes the police statistics and the media reports it as if it were a report on actual criminality,” Singelnstein said.

“If there is a big increase in a certain area, then it is reported with a lot of fuss. But the figures haven't changed that much over the last decades. There are of course certain trends in developments, however it is anything but dramatic.”

“Fundamentally, citizens can feel safe here,” GdP chair Oliver Malchow told The Local in an email.

“It is nevertheless advisable to be careful, because they say fear is not a good guide. Fear also fuels prejudices. This encourages the ostracism of refugees and inevitably hinders their integration.”

SEE ALSO: Five things we learned from the latest crime report

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POLICE

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said “it is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”

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