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Germany suspends dozens of police officers for neo-Nazi chat messages

By LOVEDAY MORRIS AND LUISA BECK | The Washington Post | Published: September 16, 2020

BERLIN — Twenty-nine German police officers were suspended Wednesday for participating in extremist chat groups that shared images such as swastikas and a depiction of refugees in a gas chamber, officials said, in the latest neo-Nazi scandal to engulf the country’s military and law enforcement.

The discovery is a “disgrace” for the police in the western region of North Rhine-Westfalia and impacted the force “to its core,” the state’s Interior Minister Herbert Reul said in a news conference.

“We are talking about the nastiest and most disgusting neo-Nazi, racist, and refugee-hostile hatred,” he said.

More than 100 images with content punishable by law were shared in five WhatsApp chat groups that were exclusively or predominantly used by police officers. The officers — 25 of whom worked for the same police force in the city of Essen — were asked to hand in their badges and weapons Wednesday.

A total of 14 officers who actively shared messages are expected to be fired, officials said. Early-morning raids were carried out at 34 homes and offices.

Germany’s police and military have been marred by a slew of extreme-right scandals. A series of neo-Nazi death threats against prominent public figures in recent years, including left-wing politicians and lawyers, have been linked to police computers. The inquiry into those threats also unearthed WhatsApp chat groups in which officers had shared racist and anti-Semitic content.

That followed the 2017 discovery of a group of neo-Nazi “preppers,” called Nordkreuz, who authorities said were readying themselves for “Day X” by drawing up a list of political opponents and hoarding weapons and body bags. Suspects were linked to the police and the military.

In June, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer disbanded a combat unit of Germany’s elite Special Forces Command because of suspected extreme far-right ties among its soldiers.

But German authorities have been accused of failing to tackle the problem head-on by experts who also have raised questions about the ability of police to investigate themselves.

No officers have been charged in the death threats, two years after they began. The founder of Nordkreuz, a police officer who previously served in the German military, was given a 21-month suspended sentence last year on weapons charges.

Even as scrutiny has increased during international Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Germany’s interior minister has pushed back repeatedly against any assertion that there might be a structural-racism issue within the country’s security forces.

In July, he canceled a planned study into racial profiling by police, with the ministry explaining that it was not necessary because racial profiling is against the rules. Instead, Seehofer mooted a study into violence directed at the police.

Steve Alter, a spokesman for the federal interior ministry, described Wednesday’s reports as “alarming” but added that far-right networks that have been unearthed in three of Germany’s 16 federal states did not indicate a “structural” issue among the country’s 300,000 police officers. Speaking during a news conference, he added that it was too early to reevaluate the decision to shelve the racism study.

The latest chat groups were discovered after an officer’s phone was confiscated because of suspicion over media leaks, officials said. One of the groups was begun in 2012, while another — where the majority of the images were shared — was created in 2015.

“I have to tell you that this process makes me speechless,” Reul said, “and that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since I found out about it.”