Cologne Police Chief Out As City Tries to Track Down New Year’s Eve Attackers

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GERMANY-CRIME-POLITICS-SECURITY
Police in Cologne.Photo: MAJA HITIJ

The German city of Cologne is still reeling from the more than 100 sexual assaults reported on New Year’s Eve by as many as 1,000 men, many of whom were described as "North African or Arabic." The police chief has become one of the first big casualties in the political fallout. The 60-year-0ld Wolfgang Albers was pushed into an early retirement Friday after being accused of downplaying the attacks. Cologne police had called New Year’s Eve "largely peaceful,"until reports emerged Thursday that completely contradicted law enforcement’s initial account.

That reports detail a chaotic and frenzied scene. "Women, accompanied or not, literally ran a ‘gauntlet’ through masses of heavily intoxicated men that words cannot describe," the report states, per Spiegel Online. Cops were largely unable to protect or help the victims as groups of men blocked the officers from making their way into the crowds. Police who tried to clear the scene were ignored and had fireworks and glass bottles flung at them. Witnesses who approached the police were apparently threatened. The sheer size and scope of the crowd made it nearly impossible to identify the offenders, and, as the reports states, "there were simply too many [things] happening at the same time." Or in the words of another officer, the scene was "like I have never experienced in my 29 years of public service."

Albers admitted later that he was "incorrect" in his initial comments, but state officials didn’t accept his apology. "People rightly want to know what happened on New Year’s Eve," said the state interior minister Ralf Jaeger, who axed Albers. "They want to know who the assailants were, and they want to know how such attacks can be prevented in the future." State and city officials are anticipating more huge crowds for next month’s Cologne Carnival, and do not want a repeat of New Year’s Eve.

Some, including Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker — who was herself criticized for suggesting that women should keep men at "arm’s lenth" to prevent assaults — accused Albers of withholding information about the attacks, specifically the fact that many of the men in the crowd were migrants or asylum-seekers. The now-ousted Albers called these charges "absurd." He added that while many men near the train station — the center of the madness — did have refugee or asylum documents, not all were guilty. Yet, some cops’ observations indicate at least some of the perpetrators were asylum-seekers. According to one police report, a man shouted, "I’m a Syrian! You have to treat me kindly! Ms. Merkel invited me."

So far a total of 31 people are being investigated in connection with the New Year’s Eve attacks, 18 of whom are asylum-seekers or migrants. The national breakdown, however, is pretty diverse. The majority of the accused are from Algeria and Morocco. Per the Times, five Syrians, four Iranians, two Germans, one Iraqi, and one Serb were questioned. One United States citizen was also called in after the melee. However, only three of the men were interrogated in connection with the sexual attacks on women. The rest are believed to have committed theft and non-sexual assault. And none of the 31 men have been formally arrested or charged with any crime. 

A total of 170 criminal complaints have been filed in connection to the attack; about 120 are related to sexual crimes. CNN reports that a team of 80 officers are scouring the internet to try to track down videos and are reviewing nearly 350 hours of footage from the night. At least two of the people questioned by police were called in because they had cell-phone videos linking them to the attack.

The police reports made it pretty clear that arresting everyone involved will be impossible. But that is only fueling the contentious debate over asylum seekers and refugees who are still arriving by the boatloads to Europe. Germany has welcomed more refugees than any other country in the European Union, and some are blaming German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s "open-door" policies for the Cologne disaster. Merkel has condemned the attacks and demanded justice for the victims, saying Thursday that the attacks did raise “some very serious questions, which go beyond Cologne.” 

This post has been updated throughout.