Victim to suspect in the blink of an eye - my encounter with Berlin bureaucracy

An Egyptian man, sold on the fantasy of German efficiency, gets a reality check after walking into a Berlin police station one night.

<em>Die Polizei:</em> Not known for their customer service.
Die Polizei: Not known for their customer service.

Berlin-One day in late October, an Egyptian man in his late twenties, with limited prior travel experience, landed in one of the world’s most glorious cities, Berlin, with hopes and expectations as high as the Fernsehturm. For a brief second, the city delivered: world-class tourist sites, happening youth culture and stunning architectural and natural beauty everywhere. But what this man, aka me, hadn’t yet come face-to-face with was German bureaucracy - that was going to be a game changer.

Lacking a German bank account, and faced with the complicated procedures involved in opening one of my own, I resorted to asking one of my closest friends, who happens to live in Berlin, to use his account for an urgent transfer. With my money resting in his account, and his card at hand, I felt quite secure walking up to an ATM one night for a fresh supply of euros. The ATM, however, couldn’t utter a word in English to save its life. So here I was standing in confusion, trying to decipher the brief commands it threw at me.

So far, my German fantasy wasn’t going according to plan.

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When it seemed like I was going nowhere, I dialed up my friend to explain what was written on the screen, and he instructed me to take the card back and wait by the ATM to see if the money would come out. I did just that, and in my 10 minutes of waiting, during which the machine’s card slot was flashing green again in anticipation of another card, no cash came out. My friend came to give it a try himself, only to be told something along the lines of "you’ve reached your daily withdrawal limit."

Up until then, consumed by widely popular theories of German efficiency and excellence, I remained fairly certain that this mistake would soon be rectified. A long call to the customer service line of one of Germany’s biggest banks was enough to change that. Not only did the agent not speak English properly, he also ended up telling us that the withdrawal had in fact been completed, as in the money was taken, and when we asked to talk to his supervisor to further investigate the issue, he simply cut us off and threw us back into the queue. So far, my German fantasy wasn’t going according to plan.

We tried again the next day, only to be told exactly the same thing and to be directed to go to the police if we wanted to dispute the claim that the cash had actually come out of the machine. A couple of weeks later, I made my way to a German police station, anticipating the ultimate solution from the authorities – but this wasn’t quite how it played out.

From victim to suspect

We sat in the reception room and soon after an officer stepped into the room to learn about our case. A third German friend had joined us to make sure that nothing in our report got lost in translation. After noting down the incident, going back and forth to speak to her colleagues and boss, the German officer came to us with the news that the incident was now going to be officially investigated, casually following it up with "Oh, and also, you’ll be the primary suspect". It took me a second to understand whom she was addressing, and to my surprise and horror, it was ME!

I turned to my German friend enquiring if he had in fact explained the issue properly, including the crucial piece of information that the money on the card was actually mine, and that I was the one here filing this police report to get my money back. He took his time to go over it once again with her but apparently I had become a suspect because I was using someone else’s card when the money went missing. It’s just simply how the system works. If you’re using a card that’s not yours, you’re automatically the number one suspect. That makes sense, I guess. What doesn’t make sense is actually informing me with the somewhat alarming accusation that should have probably been subject to further investigation before such a claim was made.

Call me crazy, but shouldn’t the police take the version of events that is reported, then investigate, sketch out potential scenarios and, based on all of that, name potential suspects? When did they become so nonchalant about accusing people of theft when they themselves are the (apparent) victims reporting the crime?

Not to paint her in a bad light - the officer actually had some compassion for me, and was sort of apologetic for how things were going with the report. Wanting to avoid having any "suspect status" linked to me and potentially affecting my chances of getting a German visa in the future (I’m Egyptian, hello!), I, along with my friend who owns the card, informed the officer of our desire to drop the case.

"It’s out of your hands now. We’re going to have to investigate it anyways," was her response.

I figured at that point that any outburst or escalation would not serve me well. After all, I didn’t want to sound like a white woman at a Wal-Mart because, well, I’m a brown man and this is just not how the world works. It’s important to note that the officer was still feeling apologetic but her hands were tied.

As we got up to leave, the officer, once again very casually, said to my German friend that I may want to consider hiring a lawyer.

So here I was, only a couple of weeks after touching down in this country: a few hundred euros poorer, a robbery suspect and apparently in such a bad position that I should consider hiring legal help and get even poorer. I may not know much about efficient legal systems, but this definitely didn’t feel like one.

I left feeling confused and desperate. On our way back home, the officer, out of guilt I presume, called up my German friend to inform him that she was going to file the report with me only as a witness but followed it up with a warning that this status could very soon be reverted back to "suspect", pending further investigation.

Thank you, Germany, good night.