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Police Academy Professor: “Only Perceptions have Shifted”

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In 1998, Rafael Behr worked as the head of a police task force or work group (Dienstgruppenleiter). After fifteen years of work as a policeman, he became a professor at Hamburg’s police academy (Hochschule der Polizei). This information, provided by Behr himself, in an article for Germany’s weekly DIE ZEIT, doesn’t give me an exact idea of how long ago he left the active police service.

At the moment we begin to change ourselves, the world around us changes, too. Not just seemingly, but really, his website at the academy (currently being relaunched) says. Behr’s field of work at the academy is sociology and coaching.

Things hadn’t become tougher for the police, Behr believes – or rather, “I can’t quite believe the complaints that things were getting worse” (Ich kann das Klagen der Polizei in Deutschland, dass alles schlimmer werde, nicht so recht glauben). “Police is neither defenceless, nor are things getting worse. But above all, there isn’t more violence aimed at the police. Only perceptions have shifted” (Polizisten sind weder wehrlos, noch wird alles immer schlimmer. Vor allem gibt es nicht mehr Gewalt gegen Beamte. Es hat sich lediglich die Wahrnehmung verschoben).

Expectations to the police had become more diverse, from a time somewhere in the late 1980s, Behr suggests. After all, police staff had to show empathy with victims, a sense of justice, communication skills, etc.. Violence, strangely, had been blinded out in that idealised new concept. When police staff happened on people with few or no prospects in life (resignierte und aussichtslose Lebensperspektiven), they were ill-prepared for such encounters. After all, resignation and exclusion [from society] were frequently combined with aggression, and police staff was usually recruited from the middle class, not from the class where aggression was a more frequent phenomenon.

Violence hadn’t increased, argues Behr, quoting the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony. At times, violence was even decreasing. Rather than violence, it was insubordination which was on the rise, and where police staff wasn’t well-prepared. The use of the term “violence” had become inflationary.

It’s probably a matter of definition. According to German news magazine DER SPIEGEL (November 2010), the number of police seriously injured on duty rose by 60 per cent during the previous five years. (Seriously injured, of course, may be a matter of definition, too.) Closer to home, Verden’s nightlife has certainly changed, and the patrolman who was knived here in summer 2009 was a first-night in our  small town.

I agree with his latter point – violence has been surrounded with taboos, to a silly degree. When even boxing becomes a “no” in “good society”, it’s no wonder that you can’t make violence a topic. Addressing it seems to be about as worldly innocent as asking Pope Benedict to discuss the benefits of buggery on television. And just as bad, addressing the former matter in an open-minded way may discredit you, just as addressing the latter one would discredit the Pope.

But that’s probably the only issue where I might agree with Behr. Let’s address a police person’s realities. One of these realities is that police staff bear guns. If someone approaches you as a police person, as happened on the Bremen Freimarkt last month, to adorn his or her face with lipstick colors (it seems to be a frequent practice), you better don’t carry a gun at all. To let unknown people come that close to you won’t be advisable otherwise. And frankly, just as these people wouldn’t paint the face of a carousel owner’s or a supermarket cashier’s face with lipstick, they shouldn’t be allowed to paint a police person’s face.

Behr replaces much of what is conveniently termed “violence” with “insubordination”. But that term, too, lacks definition. It seems to suggest that it is basically about some happy, occasional anarchism light. But that’s not the case, certainly not in Germany, which is still ticking like the corporate state it used to be. People who spit to the feet of police people (let alone into their faces) are angry, because a police person epitomises state power. The problem is that just as violence, power, too, is surrounded by taboos. German civil society, to quite a degree, and not only below the middle class, is unable to handle authority. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer ´described stupidity this way, in 1943:

The fact that a stupid person is often stubborn should not deceive anyone into thinking he is independent.  In conversation with him it is felt that you are not dealing with the person himself, but with cliches, slogans, etc. that have gained dominance over him. (Daß der Dumme oft bockig ist, darf nicht darüber hinwegtäuschen, daß er nicht selbständig ist. Man spürt es geradezu im Gespräch mit ihm, daß man es gar nicht mit ihm selbst, mit ihm persönlich, sondern mit über ihn mächtig gewordenen Schlagworten, Parolen etc. zu tun hat.)

I’m not trying to judge if the classical American cop approach – common wisdom suggests that it includes no fun factor – can be attributed to an innate American feeling that you are free anyway, and that (as a member of the middle class, anywaqy) you practically cooperate with, rather than cowardly submit to a cop. In Germany, a citizen’s feelings are much more likely to be dominated by concepts of authority and powerlessness than elsewhere. And when a cop in Germany comes across as weak, the mice will play. It’s hardly a coincidence that many Germans  find the idea of Per Steinbrück for chancellor (that’s Germany’s political top job) not only tolerable, but even desirable. It’s hardly a coincidence that Helmut Schmidt, German chancellor from 1974 to 1982, and Wehrmacht lieutenant in the 1940s, endorsed Steinbrück last week, even before Steinbrück actually decided to apply for the job.

The times when a cop’s word “counted for something” are over, writes Behr. Those times wouldn’t come back, and a different society wasn’t in sight. “It is imperative to think police anew.”

Maybe. But before doing that, we must understand what our society – not just the “new underclass” – is actually like.

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Related

We, the Anti-Democrats, December 5, 2010

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3 Responses

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  1. […] certain Rafael Behr, once an active policeman, now professor at the Hamburg Police Academy. Tai De takes issue with what Behr writes – except for the need to be prepared for armed hostilities. No, I think I got this wrong. But […]

  2. Well said. I find Behr’s article disturbing, not really because he is taking that popular “critical look” at police staff, or for the Zeit‘s habit of targeting the civil service in general, but because he’s simply wrong. Setting out from a certain status without having analyzed it, and making vague suggestions for a future approach all the same (to think police anew) casts a dubious light on sociology – at least on Behr’s kind of applied sociology.

    justrecently

    October 31, 2011 at 2:11 pm

  3. […] mentioned the way German society is ticking, in my post on Rafael Behr and the way he criticizes”complaints” from the police (or thei…. Rafael Behr’s article on DIE ZEIT has got some 163 comments, which is no small number […]


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