With major events coming to the city, Atlanta police eyes German-style crowd control

During a recent visit overseas, law enforcement leaders from the metro area exchanged ideas on training and tactics with their German colleagues.

Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Andrew Senzer stood on the grassy shoulder of a large concrete field, the remnant of a former World War II military ammunition depot near Dortmund in northwestern Germany. Tall, trim, dressed in a polo shirt and cargo pants, he watched as groups of police officers armed in heavy black riot gear calmly approached a bus packed with rowdy soccer fans.

“I look at this with some envy,” said Senzer, who heads field operations, Atlanta police’s largest division. On that day, he observed an exercise involving about 200 riot police officers from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state. He said APD, like most law enforcement agencies in the U.S., doesn’t have the infrastructure – resources, training and equipment – to match European countries’ massive crowd control operations.

Senzer, along with two other metro Atlanta senior police officers, was part of a delegation that recently visited Germany to exchange ideas about policing practices and police leadership – with a strong focus on education and training.

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

German police deal with public disorder regularly, from riots erupting over soccer matches or during mass demonstrations. But Atlanta is not immune, most recently experiencing violent protests after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

More massive crowds are on the way. “We have a series of big events coming to the city,” Senzer said. Atlanta is a finalist for the 2024 Democratic National Convention. It will have the 2025 College Football Playoff National Championship and is a host city for the Soccer World Cup in 2026. The Soccer World Cup is expected to draw thousands of mostly European hooligans, violent sports fans, to the U.S.

“We need to make sure that we have a contingency of officers heavily trained and prepared,” Senzer said. And for that, the European model of riot control could provide some useful lessons.

The small delegation, which included the Atlanta Police Foundation, was hosted by the German Police University in Münster in northwestern Germany. The visit was organized by GILEE, Georgia State University’s award-winning international law enforcement leadership program, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

It was GILEE’s first trip to Germany. “This was an exploratory mission,” said Robert “Robbie” Friedmann, a criminal justice professor at GSU and GILEE’s founding director. “We wanted to learn what each side has to offer, what each side is interested in, and what’s the best way to execute a future program.”

For decades, GILEE has offered exchange programs for senior police officers from the U.S., Israel, the UK, the Bahamas, and Hungary. Leaders of law enforcement in Brazil, China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have received public safety briefings. There are also specialized programs for crime lab scientists and bomb disposal technicians from across the globe.

The weeklong pilot program in Germany included strategic and academic, tactical and operational elements of policing. Lectures, discussions and field trips identified differences and commonalities in policing in both countries.

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

“Even though we’re separated by thousands of miles and different cultures, I found that some of the challenges we’re facing are quite similar,” said Senzer, who participated in several exchange programs to Israel over the years.

One of the challenges arises from how police departments are structured in different countries. “American law enforcement is hyper-decentralized,” according to Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The U.S. has approximately 800,000 cops working in 18,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. In Germany, 310,000 officers are serving in 18 different police forces, 16 operating under the jurisdiction of one of the states, and two federal police agencies. Its structure makes German police one of the most decentralized in Europe.

Also, Germany’s police-to-population ratio is higher than the U.S. – 3.7 officers per 1,000 people versus 2.4 in the United States.

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One of the biggest differences between policing in the U.S. and Germany is the high prevalence of gun violence – and the constant sense of threat it brings to police officers. In Atlanta alone, the number of homicides caused by gun violence – Atlanta police reported 160 in 2021 – is more than twice the overall number of gunshot deaths in all of Germany during the same year, which was 43, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office.

“The danger for the individual police officer to be assaulted, even killed on any given shift – especially with firearms – is much higher in the U.S. than it is in Germany,” said Uwe Marquardt, Deputy Police Commissioner in North Rhine-Westphalia, and Vice-President of the German Police University.

Last year, 129 U.S. police officers were killed in the line of duty, according to the FBI. The majority died because of criminal acts, mainly gunfire. In Germany, killings of cops are rare.

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Different realities in different countries inform different policing strategies, styles, training and equipment, said Haberfeld. One of the biggest and most frequent threats to public safety in Germany is civil unrest, especially soccer hooliganism. That’s why having a robust riot police force, officially called Readiness Police, is a priority in German law enforcement.

“Crowd control is something that European police forces are known and respected for,” Haberfeld said.

In comparison, the American approach to crowd control is largely reactive and a result of the decentralized nature of policing in America, she added. Especially smaller departments don’t have the personnel, she explained, and they can’t afford comprehensive riot control training or equipment.

In Germany, riot police are composed of detachments from federal and state police forces – a total of 18,000 officers. Police are required to spend at least one year with a riot unit, depending on state regulations. They are assigned to barracks and organized into 120-to-150-officer rapid reaction companies. Structure, training and equipment of riot police forces are standardized because these units often operate across state borders.

On this morning in late summer – the sun is hanging low, bright and hot over the tarmac – about 200 officers train at the former military depot which is now used by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The exercise has three scenarios. Officers first stop a bus filled with colleagues acting as soccer fans. The role players are chanting, banging at the windows and hollering insults. Officers run ID cards and pull known troublemakers from the bus.

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In the second scenario, officers escort groups of fans to the stadium. It’s called the “fan march” in soccer lingo. With the help of drone images and other intelligence technology, police can spot suspects in the crowd and make targeted arrests while quickly curbing and controlling violent outbreaks. In a third scenario, protesters have gathered for a sit-in, blocking the entrance to the stadium. After three polite warning calls echoing from a police megaphone, officers form a cordon around the protesters and carry one after one from the scene.

Standard riot gear in Germany consists of a thick black jumpsuit made of fire and toxic resistant material; ballistic vest and plate carrier; ballistic helmet; gas mask; handgun; taser; baton and trauma kit. It typically weighs around 45 pounds.

Senzer found it interesting that crowd control in Germany is “a scalable model. There’s de-escalation built in, there’s time, there’s patience. I like that a lot,” he said.

In specific situations, German riot police can use chemical irritants, like pepper spray. They can also deploy water cannons, which are equipped with digital cameras and laser technology. In the U.S., water cannons are no longer used widely for crowd control, as they are associated with the brutal suppression of civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

Senzer said the German model of riot control is not directly transferable to the U.S. In most American police departments, including the Atlanta Police Department, crowd control is a secondary assignment for officers, who have other day-to-day duties, usually patrol.

Atlanta police’s Civil Disturbance Unit (CDU), with about 60 officers, is trained and equipped to deal with more volatile situations. The officers train quarterly and are pulled from field operations when needed. The Bicycle Response Team is activated more frequently as a lower-tiered response to help mitigate crowd control.

Still, Senzer said he plans to be in close touch with his German colleagues, relying on them to be “subject matter experts” as Atlanta gears up for the coming megaevents.

Aside from tactical elements, the visit focused on education. German, and most European police forces, go through longer and more academically centered training than U.S. police. While curricula vary from state to state, almost every police officer in Germany has to complete a three-year bachelor’s program at a state police academy, which offers a mix of classroom lectures, practical exercise and field training.

Most U.S. law enforcement agencies require a high school degree for officers. The average police academy takes 17 weeks, followed by several months of field training alongside an experienced officer. While there’s plenty of continuous training offered for in-service cops, the quality of classes often varies, said Haberfeld.

“Training for police in the U.S. is the shortest in any democratic country,” she added. Most police academies barely cover tactical skills, and there’s “very little training in communication, leadership, and conflict resolution,” she added.

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After earning a bachelor’s degree, German police officers must work patrol and serve in a riot unit for some time before they are eligible to apply for more specialized assignments, like criminal investigations, drug trafficking or SWAT. To move into leadership ranks, officers must complete a two-year master’s program in police studies at the German Police University (GPU).

Most students in the master’s program have ten or more years of policing under their belt, Marquardt explained. In the program, they take a deeper dive into the theoretical background of policing, including administrative and legal issues, criminology, management and business, psychology, ethics, leadership and communication.

“The idea is that practical experience and theoretical education will blend and produce a well-rounded senior police officer,” Marquardt said.

The Atlanta delegation had mixed reactions to the German model of police education. Friedmann thought that “putting such a strong focus on higher education is where Germany can provide some inspiration to U.S. law enforcement.”

It would be unthinkable to hire a nurse, or a social worker, or a teacher without a professional degree, he added. “How does the American society allow police officers who are tasked with so many responsibilities and expectations not to have a higher education degree?”

Many senior U.S. police officers have bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but regulations vary, and it’s still not mandatory in many departments.

A strong focus on higher education “certainly makes you a smarter police officer,” said Major Fred Watson, the director of Atlanta police’s Training Academy and a member of the delegation. “But it doesn’t necessarily make you a better cop in the field.”

Watson would like to see more elements of German-style law enforcement training at home, in part because requiring higher levels of education helps professionalize policing. But it would be hard to implement the concept across the board, he said, because, again, “policing in the U.S. is so fractured.”

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Kenneth DeSimone, chief of the Sandy Springs Police Department and another member of the delegation, suggested that American law enforcement training and education may also have unique strengths, as it creates a force with broader and more diversified skills. Just focusing on criminal justice or police studies “can make a police force become insular,” he said.

He’d prefer to hire more officers with degrees in accounting, computer science, or nursing. These skills would help with white-collar crime, drug investigations, cyber forensics, and medical and mental health emergencies.

Still, setting a high standard for education seems to help German police with an issue that law enforcement in the U.S. has been struggling with for the past two years – recruitment and retention. Departments across the U.S. find it difficult to fill their ranks. APD, for example, is still 450 officers shy of its authorized strength of more than 2,000 cops.

On the other hand, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, with a force of 50,000, currently hires 3,000 new police officers every year out of 10,000 applicants. Job security is one reason why the policing profession is so attractive, said Marquardt. “Becoming a police officer in Germany means by and large that you are employed for life. Also, the pay is good, as is the pension.” Furthermore, German police officers get high-quality health insurance.

While discussions about excessive use of force are also common in Germany – most recently over the death of a 16-year-old refugee from Senegal who was shot by police after he attacked officers with a knife – anti-police sentiments are not as widespread as they are in the U.S.

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Credit: Katja Ridderbusch

Marquardt thinks lowering standards for hiring and training – which has become the practice in many police departments across the U.S. – or defunding the police are not the answer and can be counterproductive.

“It should be the opposite. If you identify deficiencies in a police force, there should be more effort and more funds put into selecting candidates and training officers,” he said.

After a week of exchanging ideas and comparing best practices, Friedmann is hopeful that the exploratory trip to Germany will turn into a regular police leadership exchange that receives robust funding and lasts for a long time.

Next year, the German delegation from Münster will come to Atlanta.

Reflecting on the week spent with his German colleagues, Senzer said that it’s always valuable to break away from the familiar, broaden the perspective and see how other police forces are working. “It makes you grow as a profession, and it makes you grow as a leader.”

Katja Ridderbusch is an Atlanta-based journalist who reports for news organizations in the U.S. and her native Germany. Her stories have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Time, USA Today, Kaiser Health News and several NPR affiliates.