What’s behind NYE attacks on German police, firefighters? – DW – 01/02/2023

On New Year’s Eve in Berlin, the fire department reported 38 separate incidents, including 14 cases where firetrucks were supposedly “lured into ambushes” and shot at with fireworks and pelted with beer crates.

The level of aggression towards emergency service staff was completely unexpected, Berlin fire department spokesman Thomas Kirstein told public radio RBB. A total of 15 emergency responders were injured in Berlin, with one requiring hospital treatment. The police department said 18 of its officers had been injured.

Berlin’s fire department said it was “shocked and saddened” by the incidents, which left many asking what lies behind the apparent increase in violence towards emergency service staff and why they in particular have become a target.

Berlin firefighters shared video footage of events on Twitter on Monday.

‘Deadly attacks’ against police, emergency service staff ‘extremely rare’

Police sociologist Rafael Behr at the Hamburg Police Academy said the incidents need to be analyzed in detail before any conclusions are drawn.

“We don’t really have a good overview regarding the complexity of the circumstances surrounding the violence. Instead, we have statements from various police or emergency services unions and other stakeholders who say that violence is increasing. But we don’t know if that is true, and we also don’t know in what form this violence was intended,” he told DW.

“It is of course very shocking to hear about such cases, because we think the emergency services are there to save lives, to do good, and we are not used to them being attacked in the same way as the police who are often dealing with conflict situations.”

Police in Berlin recorded dozens of incidents on New Year’s EveImage: Paul Zinken/picture alliance/dpa

In 2021, the Federal Criminal Police Office reported that the number of acts of violence against police officers had increased by 689 cases to 39,649 when compared with the previous year. Since 2012, cases of violence against police officers had increased by a total of 22.5%.

However, Behr believes society has become much more sensitized to violence, particularly against the police and emergency service personnel. He said verbal abuse is now also classified as violence, which was previously not the case.

“We know that deadly attacks against emergency service staff and the police are extremely rare. The number of severe acts of violence has not increased. The number of physical assaults has increased slightly, but not dramatically. It is more that we are much more sensitized to it,” he said.

Whereas the number of violent attacks on police officers is recorded in the annual police crime statistics, violent incidents involving members of the emergency services have not been well-documented. The figures are often subsumed together with those of police forces; the exact definition of violence also differs from survey to survey.

A shot from above of a smashed and burned vehicle in a parking lot
A number of vehicles were damaged during the celebrations and violenceImage: Jürgen Held/IMAGO

Violence linked to display of masculinity?

One thing that seems to remain a constant is the fact that the majority of violence is perpetrated by men, said Alfred Gebert, a professor of psychology and sociology at the Federal University of Applied Administrative Sciences in Münster.

“The respect for workers in uniform has been in drastic decline, above all among young men between the ages of 20 and 29,” Gebert told DW. “They get drunk and want to show off in front of their friends, mostly through verbal abuse, and I think that’s a failure to teach young people about respect in schools — but also a lack of consequences for the perpetrators.”

Rafael Behr also believes violence is part of the demonstration of a particular form of masculinity.

“It is definitely linked to the way some young men want to be seen in public, which is often about a show of strength.”

But, Behr said, the fact that it is a problem among young, inebriated men means it is often dramatized by the media.

“There is no evidence to indicate a continuous increase in violence. Rather, there are always outbreaks of violence in particular contexts. It happens in all countries where there are big events: societal norms and laws are broken, especially when alcohol is in play. New Year’s Eve is particularly extreme because there you have fireworks in the mix too.”

Violence against German police officers is rising

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This year, authorities lifted the COVID pandemic ban on pyrotechnics, allowing them to be fired on New Year’s Eve for the first time in two years — so it was perhaps inevitable that the number of violent incidents would increase after the lockdowns.

“I don’t believe that the groups of men who perpetrate this violence have much of an influence on society,” said Gebert. “In fact, I believe the broader society finds these attacks completely unacceptable and would like to see harsher penalties for the perpetrators.”

Indeed, Germany’s police union Gewerkschaft der Polizei has already called for harsher penalties for the perpetrators of violence against emergency service staff.

The fire service has also called for the use of more body cameras in order to be able to prove that acts of violence have actually taken place.

“That would be my appeal, to gather more data and analyze everything that happened in exact detail — and I think the reality than would be a lot less dramatic than it might seem,” said Behr. “I would caution against falling into the narrative that violence has free rein in Germany.”

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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