The Berlin police and courts are underfunded and understaffed

Years of savings have left its mark, says a senior prosecutor. While the city is making progress, it needs to do better.

Prosecutor Knispel at the criminal court building in Moabit. Where else?
Prosecutor Knispel at the criminal court building in Moabit. Where else?Volkmar Otto

Berlin-The city's low clearance rate for crimes as well as its high crime rate is eroding trust in the justice system. One of the capital’s top prosecutors says the problem lies in years of under-funding as well as a lack of police officers.

“Hardly anyone in this city can assume that they won’t be a victim of crime,” Senior Prosecutor Ralph Knispel told the Berliner Zeitung. “We have to ask ourselves why other states have fewer crimes per capita – even major cities, which also have a higher clearance rate.”

Crime rose 0.3 per cent last year to 513,426 cases, according to police statistics, with simple theft the most common crime, accounting for 22.6 per cent of all cases – 1.2 percentage points lower than in 2018. Sexual crimes rose by 15 per cent, or 628 cases, to 4,809 cases, the stats show.

The clearance rate, or percentage of solved crimes, inched up by 1 per cent to 44.7 per cent, the lowest among Germany’s 16 states. Sexual crimes had a clearance rate last year of 65.9 per cent.

You can't be a government employee without a <em>Stempel</em>.
You can't be a government employee without a Stempel.Volkmar Otto

“It’s true that New York has a higher crime rate. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Berlin is a safe city,” Knispel said. He said the problem starts with police pay – officers in Berlin are the worst-paid in Germany, even if they have received significant raises in recent years.

Two years ago courts were still relying on Windows 8

He also complained about the lack of modern equipment including cars and digital radios.

“Since 2017 we’ve had a law for monitoring telephone calls that aren’t conducted on traditional telephone connections but rather over the internet and message services. But we can’t apply this law because we don’t have the funds,” he said.

Prosecutors and courts have also suffered from the under-financing. Two years ago courts were still relying on Windows 8 and a court recently had to revert to index cards and typewriters when a hacker forced a network shutdown.

Infobox image
Photo: Volkmar Otto
Senior Prosecutor Ralph Knispel
is head of the Berlin prosecutors' association. The 60-year-old heads Department 234 for capital crimes – murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and medical malpractice resulting in death.

“We’ve since received new technology but the systems are still regularly taken offline at 5pm every second Wednesday of the month for maintenance. Nothing has changed there,” Knispel said.

The prosecutor said the lack of personnel is stretching some criminal cases over years, which leads to lower sentences since the length of a case can be seen as punishment or because attorneys can sometimes argue that their clients are back on the right path.

“I have one case where the crime was committed three years ago,” he said.

The world’s biggest cities, including Berlin, have seen a difficult-to-explain decline in violent crime since the ‘90s. But the prosecutor says while that’s true, specific spikes can be worrying.

“The number of traffic crimes rose. And with rightwing extremism, we’re seeing a very large increase. Also with leftwing extremism – even if people don’t like to hear that in Berlin,” he said. “This shows that we can’t just lean back and must show zero tolerance with all crimes even though the crime rates are falling.”

Last year, police recorded 153 cases of violent rightwing attacks, up from 128 the previous year, according to government statistics. Victims of rightwing crime also filed charges in 1,932 cases last year, up from 1,789 in 2018.

Crime on public transport also rose 10 per cent last year to 2,762 cases.

Still, the attorney says it’s not all gloom and doom. The city is making progress against organised criminals, often seen as related to foreign “clans”, and is stepping up deportations of repeat criminals who’ve lost residency rights.

“The seizure of 77 clan properties was one such success and a courageous step. But the fight against clan crime or organised crime demands endurance like in a marathon,” he said. “A little while ago, only five criminals were deported from all Berlin prisons in one year. We are now working on making up for that.”

This article was adapted from the original German interview.