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Police shootings in Germany very rare, officials say

German police spokesman Karl-Heinz Schmitt shows the media where an American soldier was shot by German police on Thursday night. Used medical items lie in the foreground. The soldier had earlier held his ex-girlfriend captive in her house. He died Friday morning at a German hospital in Schweinfurt.

MICHAEL ABRAMS / S&S

By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 15, 2008

A “Dagger” Brigade soldier shot to death Thursday by German police is believed to be the first U.S. soldier killed by German police gunfire in 28 years, authorities said.

The 30-year-old soldier, from the Schweinfurt-based 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, was shot after police responded to the man’s ex-girlfriend’s call for help. The soldier, she told police, had tied her up and threatened her but she escaped.

Police said the soldier pointed an M-4 rifle at the SWAT team called in to take him into custody. How many times the soldier was shot and whether he fired at police remained unclear on Friday.

In 1980, a U.S. staff sergeant was shot twice and killed by a rifleman with the Nuremberg SWAT team after the sergeant tried to rob the military bank on Leighton Barracks in Würzburg one morning in June. The sergeant was armed with a 9 mm pistol, had taken workers in the bank hostage and demanded a car and $1.4 million, according to reports. He was shot as he left the bank after the hours-long ordeal, heading to the car authorities had provided and using a hostage as a shield.

No one was certain Friday how many, if any, other U.S. soldiers had been shot by German police since the U.S. occupied Germany in 1945. But everyone thought that the number was minuscule.

“It’s such an unlikely and rare event,” said Bruce Siemon, U.S. Army Europe historian. “I’ve been here 54 years, and I’ve been in the history business 50 years, and I don’t remember (another) American soldier being shot by the German cops.”

“I can’t remember a case of an American soldier being shot, and my colleagues can’t remember a case, and we’ve been here 30 years,” said Harald Kurzer, police spokesman for Baden-Württemberg and its neighboring state, Rheinland-Pfalz.

USAREUR Command Sgt. Maj. Iuniasolua Savusa said the shooting was “unfortunate” and the fact that such shootings were so rare was a credit to German police and the relationship between Germany and U.S. soldiers.

But any shooting by German police is a relatively rare event.

“It’s less than a handful each year,” Kurzer said. “Five or less.”

The Bundeskriminalamt, Germany’s federal police, track police shootings but there was no one available Friday to provide the data.

Kurzer said police shot and killed a Russian man in Speyer a few months ago who, after being stopped, backed his car into an officer, pinning him between two cars. Another man, who Kurzer said was mentally unstable and attacked officers with a knife, was also shot to death some months ago near Darmstadt.

Germany has tough gun laws, with few people allowed to have them and almost no one allowed to carry them. But Kurzer said that since 1990 more guns from Eastern Europe had illegally made their way into the country.

While he said the number of German police shot to death was also “less than a handful,” German police have faced an increasingly violent public.

In Baden-Württemberg, there were 90 percent more assaults of police in 2006 than in 1996, he said. “That’s a social development,” Kurzer said. “They think they have more rights than they really have.”

Police shootings are far more common in the U.S. The New York Police Department in 2006 shot to death 13 people, up from nine in 2005, according to a story in USA Today. The department in 1996 killed 30 people.

Meanwhile, 69 police officers in the U.S. were killed by gunfire in 2007, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, which tracks police officer deaths. That was up from 52 fatal shootings in 2006, according to the group.