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Protests

Politics, justice balance with law enforcement

Anti-Semitism has been rearing its head at protests in Germany around the Israel-Palestine conflict. DW asked the head of the German Police Union what police can and should be doing against this.

Deutsche Welle: Police have not taken action in all instances where anti-Semitic insults have been heard at protests over the past days in Germany. Which criteria do you use in assessing such slogans?

Rainer Wendt: The boundaries are very difficult to establish. As police, we are pulled between allowed criticism of the Israeli state and what we refer to as anti-Semitic hate slurs. It's absolutely legitimate to criticize Israeli government policies, for example in current events taken place at the Gaza Strip. But to propagate hatred of Jews, as left-wing, right-wing and especially Islamist extremists do, oversteps the boundaries.

Where have boundaries to what is allowed been explicitly overstepped?

For example the burning of state symbols is forbidden, as is the chanting of hate slurs like "death to Israel" or "death to Jews." That constitutes punishable hate crime.

How do police proceed in such cases?

That depends on the specific possibilities for on-site deployment, and is decided by the particular police chief on duty. Even with serious crimes, the proportionality principle must be considered. If something were to happen, officials should try to halt crimes as quickly as possible; and if something does occur, seek legal accountability.

Rainer Wendt, national chairman of the German Police Union (Photo: Maja Hitij/dpa)

Wendt says the police are checked by politics and the justice system

And how does such a process look, exactly?

Perpetrators must be identified and taken into custody. Legal proceedings should commence immediately, so that we may later come to a judgment. Courts set high demands for proof, which means there must be no gap between establishment of the crime, the arrest and the transfer to court.

What challenges does this present to officers at the scene?

The police officer in charge at the scene must always keep in mind the legal situation, the behavior of the prosecutor and the overall political melange. Not to mention what the public justifiably expects of police. One could hardly imagine managing a more difficult collection of factors.

Are police doing enough to prevent hate crimes?

Yes, certainly. The incident in Berlin last Thursday (17.07.2014), where anti-Semitic slogans like "Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs," could be heard, was very clearly the result of a misunderstanding between the Berlin prosecutor and police leadership. That has since been resolved.

It's of great concern and should not give rise to an impression that police tolerate something like this. Quite the opposite - all members of the Jewish faith can be sure that the police are doing everything possible to protect them. It's only that our opportunities to act are always limited by politics and the justice system.

How do you prepare for demonstrations, like the recent Quds Day (25.07.2014) in Berlin?

Very important prior to such events is secret service knowledge, where for example they've gathered information on potential crimes being planned. In past years, many Islamic studies specialists were engaged, with a view to Islamist extremists. They helped us impart the correct importance to knowledge that is difficult to evaluate.

Demonstrators hold placards and flags during a Muslim protest against the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in Berlin, July 25, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

Several Quds Day protests took place this year in Berlin

A large number of the anti-Semitic slogans have come from Middle Eastern migrants. How do you deal with demonstrations where no German is spoken?

In certain situations we deploy [criminal law enforcement] specialists who have the capacity to evaluate what is being chanted there. Aside from that, there are constitution protection officials who can quickly assess the happenings and know exactly which elements are important.

On the one hand, you can't overreact. But on the other hand, you shouldn't miss something important, either.

Are these officials in uniform?

They are identifiable as officials. There are also scouting forces who receive special training from the state office for criminal investigations. They are not immediately recognizable.

Rainer Wendt has been national chairman of the German Police Union since 2007. He has been on active police duty since 1973 and works at the detective chief inspector level.

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