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With Far-Right Extremism On The Rise, Germany Investigates Its Police

At the Berlin Police Academy, Ewald Igelmund teaches cadets courses on Germany's rule of law. Cadets must take 2 1/2 years of courses before they're allowed to become police officers.
Rob Schmitz
At the Berlin Police Academy, Ewald Igelmund teaches cadets courses on Germany's rule of law. Cadets must take 2 1/2 years of courses before they're allowed to become police officers.

Four years ago, Simon Neumeyer enrolled in the Saxony State Police Academy in the eastern German city of Leipzig as a 19-year-old cadet.

"At the time, I naively thought the police were 100% committed to law and order," he remembers.

His naiveté began to wear off on the academy's target-shooting grounds while he and his fellow cadets, guns in hand, listened to a lecture from their commander.

"He told us we have to shoot well, because there are many refugees coming to Germany," Neumeyer recalls. "I thought to myself: 'Wow. This is very racist.'

"Later, my ethics teacher complained about foreigners celebrating loudly in the city center on New Year's Eve and that this was his home. These teachers were basically passing their racism on to us cadets."

Neumeyer tells NPR he finally spoke up one day when an academy teacher used the N-word in class. To his surprise, he remembers his classmates not defending him, but loudly defending their teacher.

"The entire class celebrated it," he remembers. "And when I spoke up and said, 'You can't use that word,' a fellow cadet banged on his desk and said it's high time it was acceptable to use that word again."

Over time, Neumeyer says his fellow cadets ostracized him. He became more disillusioned and, within a year, gave up his dream of becoming an officer.

After leaving, he published text messages on his Instagram account that his fellow cadets had sent to each other. One message, whose phrases rhyme in German, reads: "We're from Cottbus, not Ghana. We hate all Africans."

After posting the messages, Neumeyer's story went viral on social media in Germany, prompting the Saxony Police to conduct an investigation.

In an email to NPR, the Saxony Police says it investigated three cadets accused of sending racist posts over WhatsApp and removed one of them from the police force. The second cadet had already quit, and the third cadet's role "could not be confirmed as a breach of duty," it says.

The Saxony Police also conducted an investigation into two teachers as a result of Neumeyer's complaints and told NPR "no evidence of racist tendencies was found."

It notes, though, that it brought these cases with the teachers to educate them in how to recognize "xenophobic tendencies."

Barely a week has passed this year without new revelations of racism or far-right extremism plaguing Germany's police and security agencies. Whether it's officers participating in neo-Nazi chat groups or hoarding ammunition to prepare for a doomsday scenario, extremism remains a persistent problem among those who enforce the law in the country.

"Right-wing extremist slogans and pictures are being shared over WhatsApp, and extremists within Germany's own security structures are collaborating to stockpile weapons," says Andreas Speit, one of Germany's top experts on right-wing extremism. "They're ready to fight against those who think differently than them."

Racism and extremism among the police is a sensitive issue in Germany, a country still haunted by the murder of 6 million Jews during its Nazi dictatorship in World War II. Despite this troubled history, Speit says the German government often drags its feet when investigating racism. Most cases come to light because of anonymous tipoffs, he says, and the resulting investigations take too long.

"That these investigations are difficult for the police is evident from the fact that the federal interior minister is not very open-minded when it comes to initiating an empirical study on right-wing sympathies among Germany's security forces," Speit says.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who oversees the country's police and security agencies, has repeatedly refused to admit there's a problem with racism or right-wing extremism among the rank and file of the police. In July, as protests erupted across the U.S. and Europe over the killing of George Floyd, Seehofer abruptly halted a study into racial profiling among German police.

Three months later, when the results of another government study revealed 377 suspected cases of right-wing extremism among Germany's 42,000-strong federal police force and more than 1,000 suspected cases in its army over a three-year period, Seehofer dug in his heels.

"We are dealing with a small number of cases, meaning we have no structural problem with right-wing extremism in the security forces," he said in a news conference announcing the study's results.

Speit thinks Seehofer and the rest of the government need to take more aggressive measures to ensure the police don't become a home for extremists. That begins with examining the type of people who want to be officers in the first place.

Officers Eckhardt Lazai (left) and Ersin Erdogan help teach behavioral content to cadets at the Berlin Police Academy. The two invite recently arrived refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to help train their cadets.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
Officers Eckhardt Lazai (left) and Ersin Erdogan help teach behavioral content to cadets at the Berlin Police Academy. The two invite recently arrived refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to help train their cadets.

Security forces "are dominated by white men," says Speit. "So training in multicultural sensitivity needs to be intensified, because they have so little experience of other cultures in their daily lives."

The city of Berlin is beginning to address this. It's on a mission to hire more women and immigrants to serve in the police, and this year it created a new position for an extremism commissioner who will oversee how police prevent extremism — of any kind — and train cadets to identify it.

On a recent morning at the Berlin Police Academy, trainer Ewald Igelmund paces up and down rows of desks as the sun illuminates the faces of 20 cadets. He is teaching a class on Germany's rule of law.

"We talk at length about racism and right-wing ideology," Igelmund tells NPR. "Ultimately, we share a common understanding of values. You can only be here if you accept these values. If you reject them, you're in the wrong place."

But when Igelmund opens the floor to a discussion about racism, many cadets admit it's difficult to eradicate. Cadet Mark Steffan says racists are a problem and don't belong in the police force.

"But the police are simply a cross section of society, and there's no reason why you wouldn't encounter racist officers," he says. "What I find problematic is the generalization that all cops are bad. If you have 26,000 officers and there are around 200 racists, that's just 1%."

Steffan turns to his classmates and asks: "Does that mean the police have a far-right problem?"

His question lingers in the classroom, and nobody answers it.

Eventually, Sebastian Bartz, another cadet, breaks the silence. As it stands, he says, cadets must take a 2 1/2-year basic training program that partly aims to root out racists. Police in some countries, including the U.S., don't train nearly as much.

"We've spent half a year alone on how to use a weapon, how to arrest someone, intercultural communication — all this paired with legal training," says Bartz. "And we're constantly tested on this for an additional two years. We know our stuff. But in the U.S., you've got officers patrolling the streets after just six months of training."

As a comparison, police officers in the U.S. typically have one-fifth of the training that their German counterparts have. According to a 2016 report by the Justice Department, U.S. police officers participate in basic training (other than field training), on average, for 21 weeks.

In another part of the Berlin Police Academy, midcareer officers meet refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the groups brought together to learn from each other under the academy's behavioral training program. Officer Eckhardt Lazai oversees the program. He describes a moving session in which one of his officers began to cry.

"She had heard the story of a refugee who fled Syria and his whole family drowned in the Mediterranean," says Lazai. "And she was crying, literally. So we don't want people to cry, but we want them to realize I'm in a privileged position here as a police officer."

Lazai says more than a third of his police academy classes are nonwhite cadets from immigrant families. And he says it's crucial for his officers to understand how their position of privilege has evolved through Germany's troubled history of institutional racism.

"The question of racism is always connected, wittingly or unwittingly, with our past," says Lazai. "It's the truth. Maybe 10 years ago, if you would have asked me that question, I would have said, 'No, it's not a problem.' But the more I deal with this subject, think about it, I'm aware of the fact that the past is not over. It's part of us if we want it or not."

All you have to do, says Lazai, is to walk around the academy's campus to see that. His office is inside a building that, more than a century ago, served as the police academy for the state of Prussia. Decades later, during the Third Reich, it became training grounds for Adolf Hitler's Nazi forces, housing officers of the dreaded SS paramilitary group.

Today, Middle Eastern refugees are on these grounds, training Lazai's officers. He says it's progress — but more needs to be done.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this story from Berlin.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.