BERLIN — Twenty-nine German police officers were suspended Wednesday for participating in extremist chat groups that shared images like swastikas and a depiction of refugees in a gas chamber, officials said, in the latest neo-Nazi scandal to engulf the country’s military and law enforcement.
The discovery is a “disgrace” for the police in the western region of North Rhine-Westfalia and impacted the force “to its core,” the state’s interior minister, Herbert Reul, said in a news conference. Pictures of Hitler, Reich flags and an image portraying a Black person being shot were also shared.
“We are talking about the nastiest and most disgusting neo-Nazi, racist, and refugee-hostile hatred,” he said.
The 126 images with content punishable by law were shared in five WhatsApp chat groups that were exclusively or predominantly used by police officers. The officers — 25 of whom worked for the same police force in the city of Essen — were asked to hand in their badges and weapons Wednesday.
Disciplinary proceedings with the aim of termination have been initiated against 14 of the officers, officials said, with 11 suspected of committing a criminal offense. Early morning raids were carried out at 34 locations, private homes and police stations alike.
Germany’s police and military have been marred by a slew of extreme-right scandals. Neo-Nazi death threats against prominent public figures, including left-wing politicians and lawyers, in recent years have been linked to police computers. The inquiry into those threats also unearthed WhatsApp chat groups in which officers had shared racist and anti-Semitic content.
That followed the 2017 discovery of a group of neo-Nazi “preppers,” called Nordkreuz, who authorities said were readying themselves for “Day X” by drawing up a list of political opponents and hoarding weapons and body bags. Suspects were linked to the police and military.
In June, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer disbanded a combat unit of Germany’s elite Special Forces Command because of suspected extreme-right ties among its ranks.
But experts have accused German authorities of failing to tackle the problem head-on and questioned about the ability of police to investigate themselves.
No officers have been charged in the death threats. The founder of Nordkreuz, a police officer who previously served in the German military, was given a 21-month suspended sentence last year on weapons charges.
Even as scrutiny has increased during worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has repeatedly pushed back against any assertion of structural racism within the country’s security forces.
In July, Seehofer canceled a planned study of racial profiling by police, with the ministry explaining that it was not necessary because racial profiling is against the rules. Instead, he mooted a study into violence directed at police.
Steve Alter, a spokesman for the federal Interior Ministry, described Wednesday’s reports as “alarming” but said far-right networks that have been unearthed in three of Germany’s 16 federal states did not indicate a “structural” racism issue among the country’s 300,000 police officers.
Speaking at a news conference, Alter added that it was too early to reevaluate the decision to shelve the racism study.
The latest chat groups were discovered after an officer’s phone was confiscated because of suspicion over media leaks, officials said. One of the groups was begun in 2012, while another — on which the majority of the images were shared — was created in 2015.
Reul warned that more cases may emerge, after cellphones of other officers were seized Wednesday for examination.
“I have to tell you that this process makes me speechless,” he said, referring to the investigation, “and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since I found out about it.”