Is Cologne becoming a more dangerous place to live?

Statistics show violent crime in Cologne is on the rise. While some locals lay the blame at the feet of immigrants, others say the dangers are exaggerated and warn that refugees are being scapegoated for more fundamental problems.

Is Cologne becoming a more dangerous place to live?
Police outside Cologne central station. Photo: DPA

“I don’t think police have lost control. Even in further out areas with a bad reputation, I’ve never heard of any no-go areas,” Jana Gibhardt-Engle tells The Local.

Gibhardt Engle moved to Cologne 19 years ago and says she has never felt unsafe walking around the city at night, or attending large events such as carnival and gay pride.

The 38-year-old was responding to comments made in October by Andreas Hupke, mayor of Cologne's central Innenstadt district, who accused police of “giving up control” of Ebertplatz, a busy traffic hub with a reputation for drug dealing and violence.

With police statistics showing drug-related crime at its highest rate in a decade, and a rise in violent crime of 3.6 percent from 2015 to 2016, a heated debate continues over whether crime in Germany's fourth city is becoming unmanageable.

'Things have gotten worse'

Crime in Cologne “definitely has gotten worse since the extreme influx of immigrants” to parts of the city, says Gina McAnally, a finance professional who moved to the city in 2009.

“Obviously drunk people and aggressive behaviour” now put her off attending crowded events, while she complains that her neighbourhood “feels like a mistreated stepchild at times – there is not enough money going towards safety, education and generally increasing livability.”

Police have “continually had their budgets slashed and there just aren't enough of them to go around and handle all the hot spots,” she says.

An underpass on the edge of Ebertplatz. Photo: Wikipemedia Commons

Nazmul Huq Russell, a PhD researcher who, like McAnally, lives in the eastern Kalk district, says he and his wife now feel less safe walking through the streets than they did when they first moved to the neighbourhood.

His wife has been the victim of verbal abuse on the streets, and he has had trouble with drug dealers. One time a drug dealer “approached me to sell drugs, when I asked them not to disturb me, they were furious and started heated arguments,” he relates.

Russell believes the root of the problem is marginalization. Many of the dealers are “immigrants, not-so-educated, and don't know the language. Therefore, they find it difficult to get work and they become part of local groups of petty crime,” he says.

'No no-go areas'

Concerns about safety in Cologne are not universal, though. Miguel Lopes, an engineer who has lived in the city for the past few years, hasn't felt any significant change in crime levels.

“From the places I know, I can’t really tell you about one that’s totally unsafe,” he says. “In Cologne, the stuff that you usually have to worry about is more like pick pocketing and that’s mostly in the touristy areas”.

For Jana Gibhardt-Engle, fears about crime are a result of a lack of affordable housing, which she claims is fuelling resentment of immigrants.

“Because of gentrification it is very difficult to find housing in Cologne, especially at the lower end.”

“Competition between poorer people and refugees”, which comes from a perception that immigrants are given more support from the city than other vulnerable residents, has given rise to the false idea that immigrants are making areas of the city unsafe, she argues.

She brushes off recent headlines about Ebertplatz, saying the square was always a centre of drug dealing.

'Ebertplatz was normal before'

Estefanía Escobar-Kölle, a resident of the now notorious hot spot of Ebertplatz, tells a different story.

“I moved to Ebertplatz around three years ago and the square was a normal place then. But in the last year and a half things started to change and now it's a difficult place,” she says.

With its underpasses, dark corners and lack of lighting, Ebertplatz is a nightmare for police to control. City Director Stephan Keller recently stated that “from a crime prevention standpoint, this kind of square would never, under any circumstances, have been built today.”
Escobar-Kölle says she used to feel uncomfortable crossing the square, as there are a large number of not only drug dealers, but drug users, as well as “different groups fighting and shouting”. She now avoids it entirely after a young man was stabbed to death there in October.

Police in patrolling the square 4 days after the knife attack. Photo: DPA

Residents of the square have demanded from local authorities that they provide a permanent police presence. In the short term, better lighting has been commissioned for the underpasses, while police president Uwe Jacob has responded by announcing a plan to increase the police presence there, Focus reports.

But Escobar-Kölle doubts whether the police have the capacity to cope with the problem. 

Authorities are “trying to be as present as possible in the city and in troubled areas” and “simply can't tackle all issues at the same time due to a lack of resources, manpower and government funding,” she says.

READ MORE: Mayor accuses police of ‘giving up control' after murder in Cologne square


One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

A 21-year-old gunman opened fire at a secondary school in northern Germany on Thursday, badly injuring a female member of staff before being arrested, police said.

One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

The incident happened at the Lloyd Gymnasium school in the centre of Bremerhaven, a city on Germany’s North Sea coast, on Thursday morning. 

“The armed person has been arrested and is in police custody,” police said in a statement. The injured woman was not a pupil, police said.

They said the suspect had entered the school building and fired at a female member of staff, who was “seriously injured”.

The alarm was quickly raised and police said they detained the suspect at a nearby location soon after and had seized his weapon at the scene.

The injured woman is being treated in hospital.

A video circulating on social media and German news sites appeared to capture the moment the gunman was arrested.

A man dressed in black is seen lying face down on a street corner, with a weapon next to him, before being handcuffed by officers.

But there was no immediate confirmation of reports the alleged weapon was a crossbow.

Bremerhaven police tweeted in the morning that a large deployment was under way in the city centre and asked residents to avoid the Mayor-Martin-Donandt square and surrounding streets, in the vicinity of the Lloyd secondary school.

Local news site Nord24 said a school pupil had heard shots being fired and called the police. Pupils barricaded themselves in their classrooms.

Police launched a large-scale operation and cordoned off the area around the school while they carried out inquiries. 

By mid-afternoon, police said special forces had completed their search and the last people had left the building.

Authorities set up a phone hotline for concerned parents. Many parents had gathered in front of the school after being alerted by their children.

Pupils and staff are receiving psychological counselling.

Local media said only around 200 people were on the school grounds, fewer than normal because of exam times.

In a separate incident on Thursday, police in the eastern city of Leipzig said they had detained a 21-year-old student still at secondary school after being tipped off by Snapchat that he had posted pictures of himself with a gun and made unspecified threats.

The US social media platform alerted German authorities, prompting Leipzig police to take action.

 A police spokesman said that the 21-year-old did not pose a real threat, however, and only possessed an airsoft gun, a replica firearm that uses non-lethal, usually plastic, pellets.

‘Strict gun laws’

School shootings are relatively rare in Germany, a country with some of the strictest gun laws in Europe. But a recent spate has rattled the population.

Last week, investigators in Germany’s city of Essen said they foiled a school bomb assault, as they arrested a 16-year-old who is suspected to have been planning a “Nazi terror attack”.

Police in Essen stormed the teen’s room overnight, taking him into custody and uncovering 16 “pipe bombs”, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim material.

In January, an 18-year-old student opened fire in a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany, killing a young woman and
injuring three others before fleeing the scene and turning the weapon on himself.

In 2009, a former pupil killed nine students, three teachers and three passers-by in a school shooting at Winnenden, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The gunman then killed himself.

In 2002, a 19-year-old former student, apparently in revenge for having been expelled, shot dead 16 people including 12 teachers and two students at a school in the central German city of Erfurt. He too then killed himself.

The Winnenden and Erfurt massacres were carried out with legal weapons and spurred Germany to tighten gun laws.

The country currently requires anyone under 25 to pass a psychiatric exam before applying for a gun licence.