When should you use lethal force?

Internal security

Thomas Görgen, Prof. Dr.

Professor at the German Police University (Münster) in the field of criminology and crime prevention; Main focus of work and research, among others in the areas of demographic change and crime, phenomena of violence in the immediate vicinity, crime and violence prevention, serious violent crime, extremism / radicalization.

Daniela Hunold, Dr.

Guest lecturer in the field of criminology and interdisciplinary crime prevention at the German Police University. Her research focus is on the police in the immigration society, space-oriented criminology and space sociology. She is currently head of the DFG-funded project »The construction of spaces in the context of security - spatial knowledge for the police«.

Violence by the police has long been a public focus. Most recently, however, violence against police officers has become an issue in the public, media and politics.

When are police officers allowed to use force? And how badly are they themselves affected by violence? Both perspectives can be clearly distinguished, but are also linked to one another. (& copy picture-alliance, Eventpress / Eventpress Porikys)

Police, violence and human rights

Under the auspices of protecting citizens from the use of police force, the relationship between police, violence and human rights has long been discussed. As a rule - at least in systems that can be described as being based on the rule of law - the focus is not on the mere fact that the police also use coercive measures and violence in the performance of their work (e.g. to arrest a suspect); Rather, it is about illuminating the question of the illegitimate and, in terms of intensity, inappropriate use of force, through which those affected can violate their fundamental rights.

As the main bearer of the state monopoly on the use of force, the police have a specific relationship to violence. In certain situations she can and must use so-called immediate coercion. This can be done through physical violence, aids (such as handcuffs) or weapons. The requirement of direct coercion can arise both in criminal prosecution and in order to avert an imminent danger. The use of force encroaches on the fundamental rights of the persons concerned, in particular the right to physical integrity and the freedom of the person. The legitimate application of direct coercion requires a legal basis, which in Germany is primarily laid down in the police laws of the federal states. Coercion may therefore only be used if there are no milder alternatives, and its application is always subject to the principle of proportionality. Human rights issues are primarily raised with a view to those cases of police use of force in which at least one of the characteristics mentioned is missing. Then there is talk of "excesses of violence" by the police or "police brutality".

In the past ten years, a further discussion on the subject of "police and violence" has intensified in Germany. This does not refer to (excessive) use of violence by police officers, but to experiences of violence that they themselves experience on duty.

In the following, both aspects will be examined in more detail - the endangerment of human and civil rights through violent police action on the one hand and the threat to law enforcement officers from violent attacks on the other.

Police exercise of illegitimate violence

Violence by the police have long been in the public eye insofar as they are perceived as illegitimate or disproportionate. This is to be distinguished from those acts of violence that are considered lawful within the meaning of the legal powers of police coercion. In everyday practice, however, these two forms of police violence cannot always be clearly distinguished from one another. The need to critically question the use of compulsory police acts arises from the fact that the violence exercised via police organizations is neither handled transparently by the organization itself for outsiders nor do external and independent control bodies exist, as is the case in other countries such as the USA is already the case.

While individual cases of inappropriate and excessive violence on the part of the police are a recurring theme in the public debate [1], reliable knowledge about the forms and spread of illegitimate violence by law enforcement officers are few and far between in this country. Official statistics such as those published annually since 1953 by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) only offer limited statistics Police crime statistics (PKS) [2] an approach to the topic. In the PKS, a total of 1,500 cases of bodily harm in the office according to Section 340 StGB are registered for the 2019 reporting year. The statistics show that the number of physical injuries by police officers has remained largely constant after a decline in recent years.

However, it is Police crime statistics With regard to the information on the offenses of bodily harm committed by police officers in the office, this category also includes all other public officials such as employees of the fire brigade. Furthermore, the PKS is a suspect statistics, which means that cases are recorded in which the outcome of the criminal proceedings is still open and thus guilt or innocence has not yet been proven. Ultimately, no reliable statements can be made on the basis of the PKS about the actual extent of excessive police violence, since the cases that become known through reports from those affected or third parties are recorded, but not all cases are prosecuted because the burden of proof is too low, for example. It can be assumed, however, that the willingness of third parties to report the police is rather low, among other things due to the poor chances of success for corresponding criminal complaints. [3] After all, there are seldom advertisements among colleagues because they hardly receive any support for them in their own ranks. [4]

In addition, reports from victims' reports only occasionally come to the attention of the public. The human rights organization Amnesty International has collected information on this and published reports on deaths in police custody, excessive police violence and abuse in 1995, 1997, 2004 and 2010. In the most recent publication to date with the title "Unknown perpetrator" from 2010, the human rights organization came to the conclusion that "the investigation methods and processes in cases of alleged police abuse or disproportionate use of force unfortunately do not yet correspond to the principles set out in Germany signed human rights treaties are enshrined "[5]. Criticized aspects relate, among other things, to the lack of identifiability of police officers [6] and the lack of independence in investigations.

There is a consensus in police research that many different factors influence police assault. This includes, for example, working conditions and the individual characteristics of police officers. In the 1990s and 2000s, studies from German-speaking countries as a result of police attacks on refugee accommodation and the resulting public accusation of xenophobia, among other things, dealt with the particular workloads of police officers. The investigations revealed that personal victim experiences and job satisfaction have an influence on attitudes towards the use of violence by police officers [7] as well as on their own self-esteem and the degree of identification with the police [8]. A dark field study [9] also comes to the result that male law enforcement officers use violence more often than women. Furthermore, personal characteristics play a role insofar as police officers who are more willing to take risks resort to violent measures more often. [10]

A perspective linked to institutional conditions, on the other hand, looks at cultural aspects of police work and violent behavior. A distinction is usually made between different police units and the associated cultural influences, i.e. shared rituals, values ​​and behaviors. First of all, it is above all the operational forces who are confronted with greater potential for conflict than their colleagues who work in the office. [11] Among the operational forces, there are in turn the closed special units such as the SEK (Special Operations Command) or the riot police, which, due to the specific operational situation, are required to have physical rather than communicative skills. In order to be able to deal with the particular tensions of everyday work, informal patterns of action sometimes develop in corresponding units. In this respect, closed, operationally active police forces tend to be characterized by a rather low intervention threshold and strong group cohesion. In the literature, this is associated with a certain masculinity type, which is characterized by a willingness to take physical risks and the search for an identity-forming conflict. [12] Furthermore, a current survey of those affected by police violence shows that major events such as demonstrations and football games represent essential contexts for which police violence that was considered illegitimate was reported. [13] (Abdul-Rahman et al. 2019). These are operational contexts in which the riot police are primarily responsible.

Ultimately, international research in particular focuses on specific interaction and situation conditions when investigating illegitimate police violence. In this context, granted authority and perceived respect play a decisive role. According to the "Authority Maintenance Theory" [14], a person's behavior can be decisive for excessive police violence. If, for example, civilians behave provocatively towards police officers or even become violent, it is more likely that they will benefit less positively in the choice and exercise of police measures and means than those who act in accordance with the police officers towards compliant persons, for example in As part of an ID check. The level of violence is in turn determined by the level of violation of authority [15].

Other relevant situational factors for the use of violent measures by the police relate to the respective operational situation (for example, intervening in non-domestic disputes increases the likelihood of police violence being used), the group size of the interaction partners (the larger the group, the more inclined Police officers on violent measures) as well as the assessment of the extent to which the civilian actors could be dangerous. The latter is influenced, among other things, by factors such as a person's degree of alcoholism or whether someone is already known to have been involved in violence. [16]

It should be noted that, in Germany in particular, more extensive research is required on the conditions under which the excessive use of police force developed, which takes into account both interaction processes and institutional conditions.

In connection with acts of violence by the police, prevention and intervention options are repeatedly discussed in this country. Complaints offices for those affected are seen as a way of creating more transparency and opportunities for clarification in cases of excessive police violence. [17] Unlike in Great Britain, for example, there are only a few independent complaints offices in Germany, that is, not institutionally linked to the police, such as ombudsmen. Methodologically, the Ombudsman's work is primarily aimed at mediation between the conflicting parties.

Overall, however, the powers of the independent police complaints offices in Germany are not comparable with those in other European countries, in which complaints offices have the powers of an investigative authority which "investigates deaths and allegations of abuse in accordance with Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, without referring to the accused institutionally -to have hierarchical relationships or to be practically dependent on them "[18]. Powers for the independent complaints offices in Germany, such as inspection of files at the interior ministries of the police authorities subordinate to the federal states, are therefore almost entirely lacking.

Since police culture and police-specific masculinity norms can also be used as explanations for excessive police violence, [19] internal measures must be developed in the future that address negative aspects of informal professional practices and remove taboos from wrongdoing. Police executives play a central role here, because changes to internal organizational structures and processes require adaptation to the needs of employees as well as to the external (local) conditions of everyday tasks and must not remain at the level of symbolic political action.

Violent acts against police officers

As already mentioned at the beginning, law enforcement officers not only practice violence, but can also be victims of acts of violence themselves.

In recent years, violence against police officers has become an issue in the general public, in the media, in politics, in legislation and not least within the police force. The rather rare cases in which PVB were killed by acts of violence on duty [20] are extreme incidents that attract a high level of attention, but are hardly characteristic of the problem as a whole. In the media and political discussion, the view is often held that violence against PVB is widespread in Germany and is increasing and that this development takes place in the context of a general loss of respect for state authority. The legislature is required to contribute to a better protection of PVB by threatening punishments and closing possible criminal liability gaps and at the same time to express appreciation for the police and to clarify the injustice of attacks. [21]

There are findings on acts of violence against the police both from the police crime statistics (PKS) published annually by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and from so-called dark field studies in which PVB are asked about their experiences of violence. For longer periods of time, the PKS provides data on the criminal offense of resistance to state power (Section 113 of the Criminal Code). This offense can also be committed against public officials other than police officers, but the PVB are overwhelmingly affected. Figure 2 shows the number of cases of acts of resistance against public officials in the period since 1993. While the number of registered crimes has increased noticeably since the mid-1990s, it initially declined significantly from 2008 onwards. The enormous increase in recent years that can be seen in Figure 2 is to be seen against the background of a legal reform that came into force on May 30, 2017 [22], within the framework of which, above all, an independent criminal offense "Assault on enforcement officers" (§§ 114 StGB ) was created, through which public officials are to be protected beyond enforcement acts in official acts of any kind. [23] As a result, actions are newly threatened with punishment in a different way than before. This is reflected in the statistics in the manner shown; As will be shown further below, this legal reform is also reflected in a statistical decrease in the number of cases of bodily harm directed against PVB, some of which are now included under Section 114 of the Criminal Code.

Since 2011, PVBs who have been victims of acts of violence on the job have been recorded separately in the PKS. Figure 3 shows the number of victims for the areas of threat, bodily harm (simple and dangerous / serious) as well as murder / manslaughter. In the case of bodily harm and homicide, attempts are also included, which make up almost the entire case volume, especially in the case of murder and manslaughter; in fact, in none of the years shown here were more than two officers killed on duty.

Even in the case of serious and dangerous bodily harm, the proportion of attempted criminal offenses is high; In 2019, 1,300 of a total of 2,280 victims, or 57.0 percent, were affected by attempted acts.Overall, these PKS data for the years up to 2017 indicate an increase in the number of cases, especially in the area of ​​simple bodily harm offenses, while no such trend is discernible for (attempted) homicides. The very significant decrease in the number of bodily harm offenses in 2018 and 2019 is in turn to be seen in connection with the creation of § 114 StGB "Assault on law enforcement officers"; Criminal offenses that were prosecuted as bodily harm until 2017 now apparently largely fall under this new criminal law.

The BKA publishes annual situation reports "Violence against police officers". For the year 2018, the report of the Federal Criminal Police Office [24] shows 38,109 attempted and completed acts of violence against a total of 79,164 PVB. During the same period, 33,653 suspects were registered, around 86 percent of whom were male and around 34 percent were younger than 25 years. According to the police, more than 92 percent committed their acts alone, 73 percent had previously appeared before the police and 55 percent were drunk during the act. In an "overall assessment", the BKA points out that the new criminal law norm of "physical assault" has shaped the overall picture and has led to a "shift in the numbers, especially for crimes of bodily harm, towards the new norm". Violence against the police is "mostly exercised in the context of dynamic interaction processes and / or affect". What is necessary is "a continuation of the socio-political efforts to improve the respectful interaction between citizens and the police and thus to counteract increasing radicalization". [25]

In addition to the data from the PKS, findings from social science studies are also available. In 2010, 20,938 PVBs in ten federal states were surveyed about their experiences of violence while on duty. [26] In the course of 2009, 50.7 percent had experienced physical violence in the form of kicking, hitting, pushing or holding on while on duty; 1.9 percent had been threatened with a firearm during this period, against 0.4 percent of those surveyed a firearm had been used. 12.9 percent of those questioned were incapacitated at least once in the years 2005–2009 as a result of a violent assault; in 5.0 percent, the violent incapacity to work had persisted for at least 7 days.

The extent to which acts of violence against the police have actually increased in recent times is controversial in the specialist discussion. While on the one hand the increasing numbers of offenses, suspects and convicts in the police crime statistics as well as in the law enforcement statistics are pointed out, [27] other authors point out that these are data produced by the police in the context of an ongoing political debate which can also reflect changing registration behavior [28].

Zöller [29], who describes the issue of violence against PVB as "strongly emotionally charged", which makes an objective, sober discussion about how society should deal with this problem, must certainly agree.

The above-mentioned survey of PVB in 2010 showed, in broad agreement with the PKS of the BKA, that the perpetrators of acts of violence against PVB are predominantly male, of younger age, are already known to the police and are also often under the influence of alcohol. With regard to situations in which PVB were temporarily unable to work due to the action of violence, the survey revealed that the occasions that are often the focus of public attention, such as political demonstrations and major sporting events, are quantitatively less important than those that are more commonplace. 7.5% of the incidents of violence leading to temporary incapacity occurred in the context of demonstrations, and another 7.8% at sporting or other major events. Larger proportions included checks and arrests of suspects (16.9%), operations in brawls (13.1%) and cases of domestic violence (13.0%), intervention in disorderly behavior (11.3%) or police operations in connection with traffic accidents and traffic surveillance (9.0%). [30] The survey also showed that male PVBs are more likely to experience violence than women; it was also higher for physically strong PVBs, PVBs with a migrant background and activities in emergency and patrol duty or in special operations units (e.g. hundreds).

What is being done, what can be done to prevent or reduce violence against police officers? At the legislative level, the discussion about violence against PVB was reflected in the tightening of criminal law provisions in 2011 and 2017 (Sections 113, 114 of the Criminal Code). Among other things, the upper limit of the penalty frame was raised in the normal case of resistance (§ 113 StGB). In a particularly severe case, it is now sufficient for a person to carry a "dangerous tool" with him without any intention of using it during an act of resistance. With Section 114 of the Criminal Code (Assault on Enforcement Officials), a standard was created that threatens attacks in any official act with imprisonment. However, these reforms are often viewed critically in the specialist discussion, both with regard to their violence preventive effects and with regard to a privileged criminal law treatment of PVB. [31]

Beyond legislative reforms, approaches to the prevention of acts of violence against PVB and violent injuries can also be seen in police training and further education; this applies in particular to the areas of self-protection and communication and de-escalation. In addition, the use of video cameras carried on the body (body cameras) as a prevention approach has been discussed in Germany for several years. The perceptible documentation of the action should allow the "police counterpart" to refrain from acts of violence. [32]

Summary and conclusions

The connections between police activity, the use of force and human rights are diverse and complex. Police action sometimes encroaches on the fundamental rights of citizens, and in some cases has to do so, but there are also forms of use of force that are not legitimized by police powers. No reliable data is available on the extent of the illegitimate use of force by the police in Germany. According to international research, the causes and conditions of police attacks can be determined not only in individual and supra-individual (structural, cultural) characteristics, but also in situational conditions and in the characteristics of the interaction between the police and civilians.

Parallel to the topic of possible excessive police violence, a discussion about violence against police officers and their possible increase has developed, especially recently. Criminal statistics and data from surveys by the PVB itself are available on violence against police officers. The latter point to the fact that within one year around 50 percent of civil servants on duty experience physical violence from a "police counterpart" and, among other things, their right to physical integrity is violated. Serious injuries caused by violent incidents occur more frequently in everyday operations, such as intervening in the event of disorderly behavior and fights, domestic violence or traffic monitoring, than at major events such as demonstrations or football games with groups of fans with an affinity for violence.

On the one hand, a clear distinction must be made between the two perspectives on the connection between police activity, human rights and violence. The question of the individual's rights of defense against the state arises in relation to violent police attacks, but not in relation to violence against police officers. On the other hand, both perspectives are just as clearly linked. Studies on police violence such as those on violence against police officers emphasize that the use of violence must ultimately be understood as an interactive event and that the concrete action situation is of great importance, even if only partially explored. [33]