'Anything but dramatic': What experts say about Germany's latest crime report
The headlines covering the latest national police statistics released on Monday focused on increases in violent crimes and the rise in suspects classified as refugees or undocumented immigrants. But what should we really take away from the report?
The report released by the Interior Ministry showed a slight increase in reported crimes last year over 2015, as well as spikes in homicide or murder, as well as rape and sexual assault.
As criminality and immigration have become an increasingly political issue in Germany and beyond, concern was also raised over the 52.7 percent increase in suspects classified as either refugees, asylum seekers or people illegally living in the country.
“This is nothing to sugarcoat,” said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, but he also emphasized that the vast majority of refugees do not commit crimes, and therefore the public must not cast general suspicion over all foreigners.
Police union GdP said that the increase in violent crimes gave reason to bolster police forces, with its leader calling for 20,000 more officers.
But is the report proof that Germany is getting more dangerous? Not quite, criminality experts told The Local.
‘Only a snippet’
First, it’s important to understand where the statistics come from. They reflect reports made by police, but before cases are brought to prosecutors and potentially trial. Therefore the figures only include information on suspects, and not on whether charges against them were eventually changed by prosecutors, or if they were ultimately convicted.
“The statistics are only a small snippet of what crimes were actually committed and it only shows what police did, not what developed further with prosecutors,” Ruhr-University Bochum criminology professor Tobias Singelnstein told The Local.
“They are not statistics so much about criminality, but rather they are statistics on police behaviour, or how the police operated in the past year.
“What segment of crime is shown depends on how the police operated, and in particular on the reports from the population. It also reflects how the reporting behavior of the public may have changed.”
A spokesman from the GdP police union also explained that police use the figures more as a point of reference than as a complete depiction of crimes committed.
“There are only two ways that police know about a crime: either it’s clear by itself and police observe it, or someone alerts police,” the spokesman said. “Anything else stays in the dark and has to be researched.”
This is another major factor to keep in mind: a huge number of crimes go unreported.
According to Singelnstein, there may be 100 million crimes actually committed in Germany, but last year just a little over 6 million were reported. The GdP spokesman also spoke of the unknown “dark figures”, and said that some estimate there could be ten times as many crimes taking place than are actually reported to police.
Criminal law and criminology professor Kirstin Drenkhahn explained to The Local that victims may also be less likely to report crimes when they know the person. In a small, close-knit community, for example, research shows that people may feel more inclined to work out a conflict between themselves than to go to police, she said.
“If you don’t know the person and they are a stranger, you can’t resort to other methods of conflict resolution,” the Free University of Berlin professor noted.
‘Foreign-looking’ suspects twice as likely to be reported
The ‘stranger’ factor may also play a role in why there was an increase in refugee or asylum seeker suspects reported. A recent survey by the Criminology Research Institute of Lower Saxony showed that just one in five teenagers who said they were victims of violent crimes brought it to the attention of police.
The survey further showed that ethnic German teens were twice as likely to report an attack on them if it had been carried out by someone with a migrant background than if it had been carried out by a German.
“It’s quite plausible that if you perceive someone to be a stranger, you might be more likely to report them,” Drenkhahn said.
Singelnstein further explained that “foreign-looking people are subject to more stringent social controls”.
“Also police are more sensitive to controlling these groups,” he added.
Other risk factors
Another consideration in explaining the increase in refugee or undocumented immigrant suspects is the demographics of the group: the refugee and asylum seeker population tends to be much more predominantly made up of young males, and young men are more often connected to crime, regardless of nationality.
“Males under 30 have higher prevalence in general of being found in these statistics as suspects all over the Western world, and if you have a specific subgroup where a large proportion fits these criteria, then you will have an elevated proportion of this subgroup in the statistics,” explains Drenkhahn.
Why young men are more likely to be suspects is another very complicated question to answer, she says.
“If you do crime and victim surveys for young people, you find that almost 100 percent have done something illegal, usually petty offences like smoking marijuana,” she explained.
“This has to do with growing out of crime, changing your living situation and some need longer to find a stable situation.”
She also noted that the difficult circumstances faced by recent asylum seekers upon arrival in Germany also play a role in whether they commit a crime.
“Especially when looking at the refugee population, you have to take into account that many people who would normally have high chances of gaining asylum can get lost in the system, and have to stay in very cramped living situations,” Drenkhahn added.
“It’s a very difficult living situation, especially for young people.”
‘Anything but dramatic’
Another point made by the experts is that in fact, the number of reported crimes overall has not changed significantly in years.
The frequency rate of crimes in actually sank by about 0.5 percent, down from 7,797 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2015, to 7,755 crimes per 100,000 people in 2016. And when excluding crimes that related to immigration policy violations - such as illegal stay or entry - the overall number of crimes dropped by 0.7 percent.
Looking back over the years, the frequency rate has generally hovered between 7,500 and 8,000 crimes per 100,000, reaching a high of 8,337 per 100,000 residents in 1993.
“It is the same each year: the Interior Ministry publishes the police statistics and the media reports it as if it were a report on actual criminality,” Singelnstein said.
“If there is a big increase in a certain area, then it is reported with a lot of fuss. But the figures haven't changed that much over the last decades. There are of course certain trends in developments, however it is anything but dramatic.”
“Fundamentally, citizens can feel safe here,” GdP chair Oliver Malchow told The Local in an email.
“It is nevertheless advisable to be careful, because they say fear is not a good guide. Fear also fuels prejudices. This encourages the ostracism of refugees and inevitably hinders their integration.”