From the New York Times
By Alison Smale
In early December, the Cologne police made their New Year’s Eve preparations. Drawing on the previous year’s experience, they identified their biggest worry as pickpocketing and fireworks among the crowds. So they increased their holiday deployment, to 142 from 88, concentrating on the banks of the Rhine River, where revelers traditionally gather for a giant fireworks display.
As 2016 neared on Dec. 31, however, some 1,500 men, including some newly arrived asylum seekers and many other immigrants, had instead assembled around Cologne’s train station. Drunk and dismissive of the police, they took advantage of an overwhelmed force to sexually assault and rob hundreds of people, according to police reports, shocking Germany and stoking anxieties over absorbing refugees across Europe.
“We were just pressed on all sides by people,” recalled one victim, Johanna, 18, who agreed to speak by telephone from Lake Constance, Germany, where she lives, only if her last name was not used, fearing hostility, particularly over social media. “I was grabbed continually. I have never experienced such a thing in any German city.”
Much is still hazy about that night. But the police reports and the testimony of officials and victims suggest that the officers failed to anticipate the new realities of a Germany that is now host to up to a million asylum seekers, most from war-torn Muslim countries unfamiliar with its culture.
Working from outdated expectations, the police made a series of miscalculations that, officials acknowledge, allowed the situation to deteriorate. At the same time, both the police and victims say, it was not a situation any of them had encountered before. This was new terrain for all, and just one taste of the challenges facing Germany and its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, to assimilate a huge new population in an atmosphere of dwindling tolerance and volatile politics.
Lale Akgun, 62, a Turkish-born analyst who has lived in Cologne and worked on integration issues for decades, said in an interview that the New Year’s Eve incident highlighted the growing tension between those who see the new arrivals as a source of enrichment and those who see them as a burden, or even a danger.
“We need a new common history, a new shared history,” she said, particularly in practicalities, like policing.
That much became evident over the steadily building mayhem of New Year’s Eve.
Visitors to evening Mass in Cologne Cathedral, just across the square from the train station, told reporters in subsequent days that by 7 p.m. the noise from fireworks outside was so loud that they could not hear the priest, who was using a microphone.
By 9 p.m., as many as 500 youths, some of them very drunk, were growing ever more reckless in hurling fireworks at people and buildings, threatening panic. But the commanding officer at the scene declined an offer of more than 80 reinforcements, who could have been in Cologne in an hour, according to Bernd Heinen, a senior police official, who criticized the commander for failing throughout the night to look ahead and anticipate a worsening situation.
By 10:20, 10 additional officers were sent to the square. About an hour later, as the crowd swelled to nearly 1,500 and the police assessed that “the mood grew increasingly aggressive,” the police commander decided to clear the square and block entrances to the station, but still did not request the extra unit of officers.
Blocking the entrances to the station turned into its own trap. Shortly after midnight, when the usual city fireworks had lit up the sky over the Rhine nearby, thousands of people streamed back toward the station to go home. They found the entrances blocked.
In the ensuing crush, according to complaints lodged with the police, groups of four to 20 young men formed circles around young women, grasping at their clothes and bodies, and stealing their possessions.
Johanna said that she and her friends were among those first trapped outside the railway station, and then inside it after midnight. Her wallet had been stolen earlier in the evening. Now, she said, she was grabbed repeatedly by men all around.
She and two friends — a man and a woman — hid money and cellphones in internal pockets. They eventually boarded a train, she said, but it could not depart the station for 90 minutes because fights erupted “completely out of control.”
“That was really the worst night of my life,” she said. “I would not want to experience this again.”
Another woman who was there, Sara, a 25-year-old from the Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg, said the situation was still precarious at 4 a.m., when she arrived at the station with a girlfriend. Hundreds of what she described as “foreign” men “began to circle around us,” she said, agreeing to speak only if her last name was not used, also for fear of being attacked over social media.
“I grabbed my girlfriend — I do social work with women who are affected by violence — and told her: ‘Don’t look any of them in the eyes. Keep hold of your purse.’ Then I got frightened, told them ‘Leave me in peace’ with a hand gesture — anyone in the world understands that.”
Sara said that she and her friend decided to seek safety outside the station with police officers, who were themselves helpless. “I never experienced that a policeman says, ‘I would love to help you, but I can’t.’ That was really the worst,” she said. “Who should I turn to as a woman? What should I do?”
Sara said she had not yet formally lodged a complaint because she was sick, but intended to do so.
According to the police reports, the precinct closest to the station received 30 to 50 complaints of sexual assault and theft in the first hour of the New Year. Women who came to the precinct were crying; several of them left when the sole female officer available could not quickly note their complaint.
Later that morning, an initial news release from the police described the evening’s events as “peaceful.” It is still not clear, as many in the public have since charged, whether the police were covering up their failings, or the fact that migrants were involved, or whether it simply took several days for the full scope of the assaults to come to light.
While national and international news media focused on the terrorism scare that forced the police to clear two stations in Munich on New Year’s Eve, local websites and the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper reported women saying that they had been harassed on Jan. 1. By late Jan. 2, the police issued an online appeal for people to come forward if they had experienced or witnessed crime.
Since then, the police have received 653 complaints of robberies and sexual assaults, and several rapes. The mother of a 19-year-old who said she had been raped called the police by 10 a.m. on Jan. 1, and officers went to the teenager’s hotel, getting her and two other women to a gynecological exam.
Even the relatively dry language of the police report issued this week — summarizing at least 90 complaints of sexual harassment — makes the situation graphically clear. It refers over and over to victims surrounded by men and “groped in intimate area,” “grabbed by breasts and bottoms,” or even “fingers inserted in vagina.”
Angry about his country’s asylum policy, a Bavarian politician sent the bus to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office in Berlin, saying his town could not accommodate more migrants.
Rainer Wendt, head of the national police union, conceded in an interview that Cologne police commanders committed several errors — beginning with scheduling extra police deployment only for 10 p.m.
But he said there was no way to have foreseen the mass drunkenness and the crowds on the square, which is not the traditional center of celebrations in the city.
“You are always wiser after the fact,” he said. “Last year, the police deployment in Cologne was planned exactly on the same lines, and it was sufficient.”
Ralf Jäger, the interior minister of North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, noted that drink and drugs exacerbated the situation. “After alcohol and drug excesses came the excesses of violence, peaking with people who carried out fantasies of sexual power,” he told state legislators on Monday.
The hope now is that surveillance videos from the police and state railway cameras in the station, from nearby businesses and hotels, and above all from cellphones will help to identify the perpetrators. The police have 135 officers sifting 350 hours of video, they say.
Of 19 suspects so far identified by name by the Cologne police, 10 were asylum seekers and the other nine were believed to be in Germany illegally, according to a report by Mr. Jäger, the interior minister.
None were registered as living in Cologne, and four are now in custody for robberies committed during the New Year’s events. An additional 32 suspects have been identified by the federal police, including 22 asylum seekers but also three Germans and an American, among others, the report said.
Fully unraveling the Cologne events is expected to take several weeks, however. The police are also examining whether similar events reported from other cities — Hamburg, with over 100 complaints, but also Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Nuremberg — are connected, or even organized.
Holger Münch, the head of the federal criminal police, said Tuesday that “it is not organized crime,” but “what we see here is perpetrators communicating with each other and making arrangements.”
“We must recognize better where they do this, how they do this,” Mr. Münch told RBB Inforadio.
Mr. Wendt, head of the national police union, said that the authorities in Cologne and several other cities were hurriedly revising their deployment plans for carnival, which is celebrated with mass parades and revelry, particularly in cities up and down the Rhine. The main day is Rose Monday, on Feb. 8 this year.
The police and the state government in Mainz, a main carnival center, detailed extra plans this week, including creating special passages to allow women to leave raucous crowds, more bodycams for police officers and steps to explain carnival to newcomers who have never seen such celebrations.
“Unfortunately, in Germany,” Mr. Wendt said, “political decisions are somehow made only after the house is on fire.”