European Times: Berlin: Hobby police get serious

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THE VOLUNTEER Police Reserves of Berlin, set up in the West on the day the Wall was built, have been under-employed of late. Restricted to the unchallenging task of keeping an eye on dogs that offend against the laws of hygiene, these vigilantes of the Free World have been complaining of boredom. More than a few have taken to gun-running, burglary and marching in Nazi uniforms.

But help is at hand. Ten years after the fall of the Wall, this ageing band of Cold War warriors are to ride again. The city government has drafted a new law which, once through, will give them new powers. Their outfit would be known as the "Volunteer Police Service" and they would be allowed for the first time to drive police patrol cars.

Then, no longer will they confine their loiterings to the city's parks. Berlin's "Hobby Polizisten", as they are contemptuously known to their professional colleagues, could in future be sent after thieves, burglars and thugs. They will be encouraged to bring unruly motorists to order, dishing out fines in situations where their jaded, full-time colleagues might be inclined to turn a blind eye. And despite the expanded duties, they will have enhanced responsibility for Berlin's notorious plague of dog excrement. No pooch will be able to hide from their watchful gaze.

The reorganisation is intended to lighten the burden of the professional police force. Since the borders to the east became porous, Berlin has emerged as Germany's crime capital, host to a swarm of mafias originating in the former Soviet Union.

But there aren't enough policemen, and the near-bankrupt local government lacks funds to hire more. According to the police union, Berlin is short of 1,000 professionals on the beat. The shortage was fatally exposed in February when the Israeli general consulate was given inadequate protection from Kurdish demonstrators. Israeli guards stepped into the void, fired into the crowd and killed four protesters.

The police should be delighted with the help they are getting. But they are not. "Members of the Police Reserve will be given only a two-week crash course," com- plained Eberhard Schonberg, head of the police trade union of Berlin. "Then they will be squeezed into a uniform, a weapon placed into their hands, to be let loose among the population."

Whether the course is too long or too short is a moot point since, in the past, members of the criminal fraternity sought out the volunteers' training establishments to sharpen their own skills. An investigation a few years ago revealed that the ranks of the volunteers harboured more than 100 convicted criminals.

Also worrying manyBerliners is the prospect of these new sheriff's deputies with guns in their hands. After a series of gun-related incidents, a parliamentary inquiry was conducted into the illegal weapons trade in the city in 1993. Twelve neo-Nazi gun-dealers were identified. Five of them were police volunteers.

Berliners, especially left-wingers, do not fancy their chances. The Bill is due to go before the city parliament at the end of this month. If it passes, the police union has already indicated that it will fight it all the way to Germany's Constitutional Court.