FECL 27 (September 1994):

REPORT OF PROSECUTOR GENERAL ON 1993 POLICE SHOOTINGS IN COPENHAGEN

In the night following the Danish referendum vote on EU-membership on 18 May 1993, police shot into a crowd of demonstrators. At least 11 persons were injured in the shooting. More than a year later, the "Noerrebro night", is still a matter of heated public debate in Denmark. On 29 August, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Asbjoern Jensen presented the findings of his comprehensive investigation of the events. On the whole, the report ordered by the Minister of Justice white-washes the police. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the Prosecutor General has succeeded in putting an end to an affair that seems to have deeply shattered the trust of many Danes in their system of government.

 

The events of 18 May

In the evening of 18 May, some 500 people gathered at a rally of anti-EU activists in the Copenhagen district of Noerrebro. The gathering started as a rather joyful street party. But when the "Yes" vote in the EU-referendum was announced the rally turned sour and about a hundred people set up barricades around part of Noerrebro, creating what they called an "EU Free Zone". Only minutes earlier, the Police Intelligence Service (PET) had reported that everything was calm and a special alert squad of the police had already been sent home earlier in the evening.

A handful of youths began smashing bank windows and vandalising stores along the main street in Noerrebro.

By midnight about 200 youths, journalists and bystanders were present in St Hans Square. As a police platoon approached the square it was met by demonstrators throwing cobblestones, rocks, pieces of glass, iron rods and other materials from construction sites around the square. Instead of drawing back in presence of the superior force of the rioters, the police, who had little or no tear-gas left, tried to disperse the crowd by advancing as a chain. Some officers responded by throwing stones back at demonstrators.

A little time later, the leaders of the Uropatrulj and of a police platoon ordered the police to fire warning shots [Uropatrulj, i.e. "Unrest patrol": a special branch of plain clothes police which engages in surveillance of groups viewed as inclined to disturb public order and in patrolling and observing the illegal drug-trade in the city]. In the two volleys that followed, 92 shots were fired by 29 police officers: some were aimed into the air, some were aimed a little above head height, and some were fired directly into the crowd. It is believed that all those who were wounded by bullets were shot during this incident.

According to the police, the shots had little if any effect; many, including police, explained that they mistook the shots for firecrackers. Demonstrators continued to throw stones. However, with the aid of fresh tear-gas, police forced some of the remaining demonstrators into another street. There, some demonstrators reportedly continued to throw stones and some police officers threw back stones.

About 10 minutes after the first shooting, the police again drew their weapons and reportedly fired 21 more shots. No one is believed to have been hit.

At 00.50 hours the Special Command Unit of the Police reported the situation as under control and the police operation ended at 04.00 h.

 

The aftermath

A total of 47 people were arrested, including nine of those treated for bullet wounds. Some were charged only on the basis of their presence in the area. Charges were later dropped against several, including six of those who had been shot. At subsequent trials, nine people were sentenced up to three months' imprisonment; two were fined for minor offences, one of which was unrelated to this incident. 15 people were acquitted. The prosecution believes the sentences were too lenient and has appealed the convictions and the acquittals.

It should be noted, that none of the policemen wounded during the riot suffered injuries requiring other than out-patient treatment.

The day after the shootings, the Prime Minister and the Chief of Copenhagen Police publicly justified the shootings. The Prime Minister said that according to his information "a number of police officers were lying on the ground in a very dangerous situation...It was a question of life and death [and] the police had no alternative but to shoot".

This version was later maintained by two reports into the events issued by the Chief of Copenhagen Police after months of massive public demands for an enquiry into the Noerrebro shootings.

However, TV-videos of the incidents show uniformed and plainclothes police officers aiming their guns and shooting directly into the crowds. No officer can be seen lying wounded on the streets between the police chain and the rock-throwing demonstrators or directly behind the police chain. Eye-witnesses also testified that they had seen no wounded police officers lying in front or directly behind the chain at the time of the shooting.

One of the victims, a 31-year-old man, had walked down to St Hans Square to see what all the commotion was about. Minutes later, as he was running from the sound of gunfire, his jaw and bottom teeth were shattered by a police bullet. The bullet stopped in his neck, just a few millimetres from his carotid artery. His injuries required extensive surgery.

After his treatment, the doctor told him he was under arrest and was not allowed to receive visitors. On 20 May police came to question him but he refused to speak without his lawyer present. The following day he was taken to prison, where he remained in isolation until his release on 22 May on the orders of the court. All charges against him were dropped in January 1994.

The two internal police reports on the Noerrebro events completely failed to calm public criticism. The Chief of the Copenhagen Police was accused of withholding information. Bowing to massive public and political pressure, the Minister of Justice, Erling Olson (Social Democrat), finally asked the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP: Danish Prosecutor General), Mr. Asbjoern Jensen, to conduct an "non-partisan enquiry" into the Noerrebro events.

Moreover, in summer 1994 charges were finally brought against three police officers from the ranks.

 

The Jensen report

The Prosecutor General's findings and conclusions were made public on 29 August.

The DPP's "impartial report", as it was dubbed by the Minister of Justice, can be summarised as follows: On the one hand, while establishing in detail an impressive list of partially serious deficiencies in the police's handling of the Noerrebro events, it carefully avoids blaming the police leadership and, on the whole, denies any police responsibility for the dramatic evolution of events. On the other hand, it clearly points to Copenhagen's so-called "autonomous" youth scene as the main culprit, while producing little evidence for its assessment of this group as a serious threat to public order, or being inclined to terrorism and being organised. In particular, the DPP's report includes little evidence of his and the police's allegation that the confrontation with the police was planned long in advance.

In striking contrast with his own hints at an "autonomous" plot, the DPP seeks to explain the police's unpreparedness on the eve of 18 May 1993 by the fact that the PET (Police Intelligence Service) had no information about a planned confrontation although it had effectively infiltrated the "autonomous" scene.

Implicitly, the DPP's description of the police's behaviour amounts to massive criticism:

Yet, on the whole, the Jensen report depicts the wrong doings of the police as the result of an unhappy cumulation of bad luck, technical failures, blunders and minor human misjudgements.

The DPP recommends a series of technical measures such as better radio equipment, safer riot gear, more frequent use of tear gas grenades and the purchase of armoured vehicles to improve police efficiency in handling riots.

"On the whole", " fully believe that society can be well served by the police", the DPP concludes. The report contains no recommendations aiming at a more general scrutiny, let alone reorganisation of the police system.

The DPP is more outspoken with regard to the "autonomous" youth scene which according to him "planned" the riots.

The report stresses that, considering the movement's inclination to violence, there are good reasons to believe that similar outbreaks of violence must be expected in the future.

Among other things, the DPP advocates stronger punishment of stone throwing which he considers a dangerous assault punishable with up to 4 years imprisonment under the Danish Criminal Code. The offence of rioting must also encompass bystanders who, although not resorting to violence themselves, do not disperse and get caught between the battle-lines.

Moreover, he recommends that the closure of youth centres owned by the city of Copenhagen and other locals viewed as meeting places of "autonomous" groups should be considered. The DPP admits that a ban on the "autonomous" groups, although desirable, would prove difficult to implement because of the scene's loose and informal structure of organisation.

 

Public reactions to the report

Official reactions to the Prosecutor General's report were overwhelmingly positive. The Minister of Justice expressed satisfaction with the findings that, in his opinion, contain no criticism of the police.

Poul Eefsen, the controversial Chief of the Copenhagen Police, and the president of the Copenhagen police union both declared that they were proud of the report's conclusions.

Following the publication of the report the police held a "de-briefing" meeting with the commanding police officers who had a key role in the Noerrebro events. They said that the DPP's critical remarks about the behaviour of some Uro-men will lead to an examination of how plain clothes policemen should operate in the future. "We have criticised some colleagues", a police spokesman affirmed.

However, police conclusions from the report focus on demands for things such as better radio equipment. No need is seen for a comprehensive redefinition of the tasks of the Uro-patrol and its role at demonstrations.

Most of the political establishment and the media welcome the "impartial" report and seem eager to present it as the final word that will close a long and troublesome debate nourished by reciprocal accusations and suspicions.

Some commentators add some slight criticism of this general message.

The newspaper Det Fri Aktuellt notes that the DPP has failed to answer key questions about the failure of police intelligence in predicting unrest and the lack of available police forces on the night of a referendum vote that had stirred emotions in Denmark for months and wonders why the DPP has no harsher words for what has been unequivocally documented on TV-videos: "Police throwing stones in a completely senseless and grossly provocative manner". The editorial takes offence at the fact that low-ranking police-men alone are blamed by the DPP. "Poul Eefsen [the Police Chief] should have accepted responsibility for the numerous leadership errors, particularly concerning the Uro-patrol". Hinting at the increased infiltration and surveillance of "radical" groups ranging from Rockers to Anti-EU activists by the Police Intelligence Service, the same editorial remarks that the radical youth scene has no homogenous structure, but is made up of a large variety of groups "ranging from peaceful youngsters merely collecting press cuttings on neo-nazi extremism to others who promote terrorist action...A mere police response will push more youths towards extremism".

The municipal administration of Copen-hagen warns against calls for closing down youth centres. Instead, the youth centres should be used as an opportunity to seek dialogue with the "constructive elements" in the scene.

There are also some attempts among critics of the police to make the best of the DPP's report. Thus, in the interpretation of Henning Koch, a lecturer of law at Copenhagen University, the Prosecutor General's account of the events amounts to "sharp and detailed" criticism of the police. Koch has his own explanation for the contrasting leniency of the DPP's conclusions: "The task of the DPP was to describe, not to condemn. It is up to the Minister of Justice, to draw the necessary conclusions".

Among the more established press, the daily Information is quite alone in its unequivocal rejection of the report: "It would be most naive to believe that the Prosecutor General has had the last word with his report. For that to happen it is all too one-sided, too obvious in its motives and too easily placed in a larger context".

Information points at the DPP's way of dealing with what it considers the crucial question: "Was shooting necessary to protect defenceless policemen?" and reproaches the Prosecutor General with basing his findings on the sole account of two policemen, while completely ignoring non-partisan evidence to the contary. The DPP's way of proceeding, Information goes on, is smart, but all too obvious. "Whenever he understands that he is unable to deny wrongdoings [of the police].., he takes the matter up and admits. But whenever one expects, that now responsibility is going to be established, he hurries to find elements of excuse for the situation and allows himself to conclude that, on the whole, there are no grounds for criticism".

The DPP's motive was consideration, Information concludes: Consideration for a police force that had reached the limits of what it could bear "and - lest we forget - for the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Foreign Affairs who all backed up [the police] already on May 19 without having the slightest idea of what had happened".

 

Sources: Amnesty International: Police Ill-treatment in Denmark (AI-Index: EUR 18/02/94); Det Fri Aktuellt, 31.8.94; Berlingske Tidning, 31.8.94; Politiken, 30.8.94; Arbejdaren, 30.8.94; MorgonavisenJyllands Posten, 30.8.94; Information, 29.8.94, 31.8.94

 

 

Comment

Compared with the earlier information policy of the Danish government and the police that consisted in summary denials of any wrong-doing, followed by contradictory and fragmentary explanations, the Prosecutor General's report is undoubtedly a marvel of detail and consistency. But will it suffice to prevent the dramatic events of 18 May 1993 from recurring?

One might agree, as most commentators in Denmark do, that Mr. Jensen has done his best to cast full light on what happened that night in Copenhagen. Yet, the question remains, whether he really was the right man for the job.

Jens Vestergaard, a lecturer of criminal law at Copenhagen University who welcomed Mr. Jensen's report on the whole, hit the nail on the head: "One can not shut one's eyes to the fact that the appraisal comes from the prosecution authorities' and the police's supreme administrative chief. One could have wished for a more impartial enquiry". In Vestergaard's view, the report therefore amounts to no more than "an internal efficiency analysis carried out by the supreme management".

Indeed, by entrusting the Prosecutor General with the enquiry, the government missed the chance to meet the demands of, among others, Amnesty International for a "thorough, independent and impartial investigation" of the events.

No matter how good the intentions of the Director of Public Prosecution, his findings are marked by professional bias. Who could reproach him with this? A prosecutor's job is, above all, to see to the maintenance of public order and to prosecute those who disturb it - if necessary, with the repressive force of the police. He is not expected either to analyze the deeper causes of conflict or to propose solutions beyond mere policing.

Considering this, it is not surprising, that the Jensen report narrowly focuses on a technical and tactical evaluation of the police operation during a riot night. In this sand pit table game, the starting point is obvious: There are the "bad guys" who, on the night of May 18 disturbed the order and instigated violence. And there are the good guys - the forces of order - whose task was to stop the mob. The question is not: Why did the bad guys disturb the order and start rioting?, but: Were we effective in confronting them?

The Prosecutor General somewhat naively notes that the police were very co-operative in providing him with comprehensive information, while non-police witnesses were reluctant to speak out. In other words: His findings are based mainly on the accounts of his men. This is why particular incidents involving alleged wrong-doings of the police are analyzed in the greatest detail, while the assertion that the rioting was planned in advance by organised violent political groups remains nebulous. The Prosecutor General systematically omits any examination of facts and events that might have played a crucial role in leading to the events at Noerrebro. Thus, no mention is made of the Uro-patrol's notoriously bad record including a row of disturbing cases of ill-treatment and arbitrary and provocative behaviour, long before May 18.

The report is just as vague regarding the tasks and the role of the PET's covert agents before 18 May. According to concurring accounts of government sources, journalists and concerned youths, the "autonomous" groups were subjected to massive snooping and surveillance by PET agents. If the riots were planned, as suggested in the Jensen report, why did the PET fail to warn the police at an early stage?

If the riot was not planned by circles within "autonomous" youth scene of Copenhagen, could someone else have had an interest in triggering a violent confrontation with the police?

The year 1993 was marked by some social and political turbulence in Denmark.

The harsh austerity policy of recent years (one reason among others for the rise in number of marginalised youths) together with the determination of the country's political leadership in seeking membership of the EU despite strong popular opposition had given rise to wide-spread bitterness and anger against "the politicians".

Beyond its immediate goal of keeping Denmark out of the EU, the movement against the EU threatened to unite a strong potential of protest. The political establishment reacted with a policy of carrots - by promising jobs and welfare in the event of EU-membership, and sticks - by a veritable campaign aiming at discrediting the broad movement against the Maastricht Treaty. The conservative daily Berlingske Tidning for instance, published a highly imaginative series of articles summarily accusing EU-opponents of mingling with German left-wing terrorists.

The events of 18 May appeared to lend some credibility to such allegations and provided a welcome opportunity to further question the democratic credibility of the anti-EU movement as a whole.

No one will blame the supreme chief of policing for failing to deal with possible political causes of the Noerrebro riots. This would be just as unfair as to expect a surgeon to pay attention to the psychosomatic aspects of his patient's illness.

But as long as a thorough enquiry beyond the mere policing aspects of the sad events of 18 May is not carried out, disturbing questions about the police shooting will remain and Mr. Jensen's conclusions are likely not to remain the last word in this affair.

 

N.B.