Deaths in Small Rooms

Harry Stopes

Kupa Ilunga Medard Mutombo was a 64-year-old man who suffered from schizophrenia and lived in an assisted living facility for mentally ill and disabled people in Falkensee, on the north-western outskirts of Spandau. He had never married and was childless, but his older brother, Mutombo Mansamba, and some other family members live in Berlin, and he saw them often. He was a gentle man, his brother told a press conference on 10 October, quiet and friendly.

The press conference was held at the offices of Reach Out, an NGO providing advice for victims of racial profiling and racist police violence. Mutombo’s carers and his court-appointed guardian had decided he needed to go to hospital: on 14 September they came to take him, with an ambulance and three police officers. Reporting what he heard from the carers, Mansamba told the press conference that his brother had opened the door to his room and, on seeing the police, panicked and tried to close the door. The police forced it open and went in.

The carers told Mansamba that they remained outside. (They haven’t spoken to the press.) There was some kind of struggle, they said. One of them saw Mutombo had blood on his face; an officer took a blanket from the bed to wipe the blood away. Another carer saw an officer restraining Mutombo with his knee on his neck. ‘To paint the picture for me,’ Mansamba said, ‘he used the name of George Floyd.’

The police called for assistance and another thirteen officers arrived, crowding into the small room. A carer tried to go in but an officer shouted at him to leave: ‘We don’t want any tourists here!’ After some time the officers took Mutombo onto a patch of grass outside and seemed to be trying to revive him for about twenty minutes. One carer overheard an officer say: ‘He isn’t breathing!’ It was surprising, Mansamba remarked to the press conference, that the police didn’t immediately bring his brother to the ambulance that was already on site.

Mutombo was taken to the local hospital in Spandau, then on 19 September transferred to the neurosurgery ward at the Charité in central Berlin, where he remained in a coma. Mansamba was only contacted on the 21st by staff at the hospital – he had heard nothing from the police or his brother’s carers. On 6 October Mutombo died. The results of the autopsy are not yet public.

It is unclear, Biplab Basu of Reach Out told me later, why the carers summoned the police in the first place. He also wondered why, when Mutombo made to close the door, they didn’t take the lead in trying to reassure him and persuade him to go to hospital. The police could have gone away and come back later, he said.

Mutombo’s death came at a moment of increased tension around racist policing in Berlin. (Last week’s arrest of 25 suspected right-wing terrorists, among them police officers, only deepens the tensions.) On 9 September, two officers went to the home of a Syrian family to arrest a man for several unpaid travel tickets. In a secretly recorded video, which begins some time into the encounter, a woman accuses a policeman of hitting her husband. ‘This is my country,’ he replies. ‘You’re a guest here. Shut your mouth … I’ll take you to jail.’ Even as he called the officer’s behaviour ‘absolutely unacceptable’, Berlin’s SPD interior minister, Torsten Akmann, said it makes him ‘angry’ when critics blame the police as a whole. ‘The Senate stands by its police.’

A few weeks later, his SPD colleague Iris Spranger lost her temper with a counterpart from Die Linke. ‘It makes me mad,’ she said, ‘when people say there is widespread racism [in the police]. I can’t listen to this any more!’

‘The senator is still not ready, I think, to recognise this as a problem,’ Niklas Schrader, a member of the Berlin parliament for Die Linke, told me. ‘She is still defending this theory of single cases, and that we only have to do something about these single officers. I think it would be a good start to recognise that we have a problem … But there’s not a tradition in Germany to question this authority.’

The arrests of the so-called ‘Reichsbürger’ plotters highlights the serious and longstanding problem of organised and committed far-right activists in the German police and security services. But the country has also been slow to acknowledge more mundane, everyday forms of police racism. It is still unclear why Dortmund police shot and killed Mouhamed D., a 16-year-old asylum seeker from Senegal who was experiencing a mental health crisis in August this year. Two officers were recently charged over the death of a mentally ill man in Mannheim in May.

Those who have appointed themselves to speak for police in Germany seem to find such observations enraging. Manuel Ostermann, the deputy national chairman of the union for federal police officers and a frequent media commentator, has boasted that ‘in Germany, nobody has to be afraid of the police. On the contrary, in Germany we can live in the certainty that we have a police force based on the rule of law, recognised and respected worldwide.’ Ostermann’s respect for the rule of law does not appear to extend to respect for the oversight of police by democratically elected politicians. ‘The outrage strategy of mostly left-wing politicians and activists to discredit every lawful police measure is extremely dangerous,’ he has tweeted. ‘Under #racialprofiling they try to discredit the police in order to enforce their own radical ideology.’

Oury Jalloh’s name still rings out at every demonstration against police violence. He was arrested in Dessau in the morning of 7 January 2005. He was strip-searched, taken to a cell in the basement and placed on a mattress, with his hands and feet tied to the wall and floor. Shortly after midday firemen were called to extinguish a fire in the cell, in which Jalloh’s burnt body was found.

Officially, Jalloh had set fire to himself. Experts have found that it would have been very difficult for Jalloh to set the mattress alight without an accelerant even if his hands hadn’t been tied. There was also the question of how he might have ignited the fire. Three days after his death, police ‘found’ a partially burnt cigarette lighter in an evidence bag. None of Jalloh’s DNA or other traces from the scene were identified on it.

One officer, Andreas S., was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter for keeping an insufficiently close watch on Jalloh and failing to respond to a fire alarm. He was fined €10,800. Later investigations have found that Jalloh had suffered bone fractures to his head and torso before his death, and that the cell door was probably open for most or all of the fire’s duration.

Mutombo Mansamba’s lawyer told the press conference at Reach Out that Germany needs an independent body to investigate the police, ‘like they have in other countries’. Niklas Schrader agrees. It may not help much. The Police Complaints Authority was established in Britain in 1985, to be replaced by the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2004 and the Independent Office for Police Conduct in 2018. There have been at least 205 deaths of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in police custody or following police contact in England and Wales since 1990. Only one officer has been found guilty of manslaughter in that time, for the death of Dalian Atkinson in 2016.

Comparing and contrasting racism and police violence between countries is of limited value if it does not drive concrete change. As Gary Younge has observed, it often functions only to reassure the person making the comparison that ‘we’ are not as bad as ‘them’. Nevertheless, there is a surprising reluctance in Germany to submit the country to serious scrutiny on matters of race. As Maria Häußler wrote in the Berliner Zeitung after Mutombo’s death, ‘we must finally talk about police violence.’


  • 16 December 2022 at 9:20pm
    rjmzapater says:
    Police like soldiers of all stripes and flags have license to kill unimpeded.

  • 17 December 2022 at 1:17pm
    Camus says:
    The Amadeo Organisation estimated in 2021 that 189 people in Germany had been murdered by right-wing extremists. Since then at least six more have been killed but the official total, based on police reports puts the number at 109. The discrepancy is probably due to a statistical error whereby the numbers are based on the first reports of violence in which an official assumes that a dead refugee must have been a victim of mafia rivalries. The ten victims of the NSU terror group were initially classified by the police as the "Döner murders", the assumption was that they were involved in a conflict among Turkish gangs. The subsequent investigations showed that police and intelligence officials were themselves often sympathizers and ignored the evidence of racially motivated violence.
    Networks of police and security groups have been unearthed in which racist and xenophobic messages changed hands. One such group called themselves "NSU 2" which might have been intended as ironical criticism but Germans don't do irony.