An (Un)equal State
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Steven Bartomioli. Steven was born and raised in Connecticut, but now lives in the foothills of the German Alps. He graduated from Norwich University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, focusing on U.S. policy and foreign relations. Steven spends a lot of his time working as an analyst for Wikistrat, the world’s first crowdsourced geostrategic consultancy. An entrepreneur by spirit and practice, Steven is currently working towards his Master of Business Administration while actively pursuing several startup projects.
The United States has experienced a thread of substantial and sometimes overpowering instances of police confrontations. Ferguson. New York City. And most recently Los Angeles. All of these instances fueled the fear, hatred, anger, and mistrust by both sides. Racial profiling is often attributed as the cause of such confrontations with police.
While many think the situation in the U.S. with regards to racial profiling may be getting out of control, it is important to consider two circumstances. First, the U.S. has come a long way since the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, which is undeniable. Will change happen over the course of a decade or more? No, it will take several generations and decades before a normal is realized that fear on both sides of the coin are limited to a point that it is rarely sensationalized.
The second point, it could always be worse. As a white, male, American who has now lived in Germany for the last seven months, I can say I am more afraid of the police here than I am in the United States. Disregarding my citizenship because the United States and Germany have a strong relationship, the police here have substantially more freedom to do as they please than they do in the U.S.
There is a movement in the U.S. to require most if not all police officers to wear body cameras in order to provide a better understanding of any confrontation that might occur. In Germany, body cameras are relatively unheard of. The protection of the individual’s rights is an insignificant concern here in Germany. An individual’s privacy and right to feel secure in their person is one of the most basic expectations we have as a society. Stalking is considered to be one of the most basic offenses against this expectation. While the German Criminal Code does penalize stalking (§ 238 StGB), it is very loosely enforced.
Simone, a pregnant German woman who had recently fled her estranged husband with their two children, suddenly found that he was regularly driving around her new apartment. She had fled because he was beating her and she feared for her life and the life of her baby. After notifying the police, she was told they could do nothing against him because under Article II of the German Constitution, he has the right to do as he pleases so long as there is no direct infringement of another’s rights. The above German law and German Constitution directly contradict each other and provide a state of inequality. Simone was fearful of her life and this caused her great distress and yet his rights seemingly trumped hers. This was further reinforced when the police told Simone that a restraining order could not be established because he had the right to go wherever he pleased.
Mohamed, an acquaintance of mine since I have lived here, is married to a native-born German. He is Palestinian, speaks fluent German, works in Germany, and together he and his wife have a son who was born in Germany. Mohamed is also a Muslim, something that is not obvious from his exterior. However, what is obvious is he does not look like your typical German simply because of the darker complexion of his skin. The color of his skin has regularly caused him trouble in Germany through random searches and at times blatant harassment by police. This is much similar to the racial profiling of the United States. However, what is not similar is that in the United States where a police officer can face termination from his position, in Germany this kind of racial profiling is somewhat acceptable. It is regularly reinforced that the individual’s rights are secondary to the security of the state. As recently as 2012 a German court declared it illegal to search or question an individual based on their apparent race. While this practice of is now illegal, police who conducted this profiling are still working, superiors are still in charge who condoned this behavior, and it has only been three years, enforcing the idea this behavior still exists and that it will take some time before greater equality is realized. However, as increases in immigration and fears of religious extremists mounts, it is expected this anti-discrimination law will increasingly diminish in strength.
Theresa, is a white, native-born German woman. Unlike Mohamed, she looks like that of your typical German; fair skin and blonde hair. However, like Mohamed, she too has experienced an infringement of what would be considered personal rights in the United States. Several times she has been pulled over by the police without any wrong-doing. In fact, in the span of a one-hour drive home late at night following a conference, she was pulled over three times! It was around the time of Oktoberfest and this was the only reason the police gave themselves for pulling her over. She was not speeding, was not driving erratically, and had no faults with the car, some of the required reasons a police officer needs to provide to pull you over in the U.S. On each account Theresa was released once the police felt they had bothered her enough.
This kind of abuse of power by police officers is minor compared to the near 2,000 reported cases of police brutality per year in Germany. Most of these reports amount to nothing and in some cases, people die as a result of police brutality and there are no investigations. In some cases, the victims become victims of the very people they reach out to for help as is the case with Teresa Z. from Munich. If you were wondering how the police can simply pull you over without any reason, it is just that. In the U.S. the police must have reasonable suspicion or probable cause in order to detain and/or search an individual. In Germany, the police can pull you over simply because they feel like it; it is called “allgemeine Verkehrskontrolle” or “general traffic control” (§36, Section 5 of the StVO). Not to say that police do not profile or simply “get bored” in the U.S., but in Germany the police do not even need to attempt to make up a reason for having pulled you over.
As an American, this frightens me. While my beloved America and Germany are certainly allies, it is still uncertain as to what fate I would meet simply for my status as a foreigner. In the U.S. it is said that citizens should see the police and feel safe, not paranoid. The latter is truly the case in Germany. It is possible people have become blind to this type of inequality in Germany because it was developed out of necessity, following the end of World War II when the Soviet Union and United States divided Germany. However, the simple fact is complacency has become rampant. Whereas an American’s first reaction when confronted by the police is to question the basis for such an interaction, in Germany you are conditioned to believe yourself guilty first and then you must prove your innocence.