Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘police

German justice and prejudice against the written word

with one comment

On the good-news side, German law enforcement is actually looking into Koch Media (cf. [1], [2]), and I was called in to make a statement earlier this week.

On the bad-news side, this experience gave a second (cf. below) example of severe flaws in the testimonial process, pointing to the benefits of written statements.

Consider that:

  1. I was called to appear in person, despite having already given what I consider sufficient written information—which I would, obviously, have been easily able to amend in writing, had the need appeared.

    Going by what the interviewing police officer said, I suspect that he had problems comprehending the references to blog entries in English (in my German complaint) and/or was thrown off by the more general discussion of industry-wide issues in these blog entries. Had he asked me for a more concise German text, I would have provided one gladly.

    With a written statement sent by post, we would all have had less effort.

  2. This cost me: A fifteen minute train-ride + time waiting for the train + time getting from my apartment to the first station + time getting from the last station to the police + a security buffer, for a total of at least three quarters of an hour in one direction. Another twenty or twenty-five minutes waiting for my turn (past the time of the appointment, not including the planned buffer), because another interview took far longer than planned. Another half-hour to an hour* for the actual statement, including introductions, re-iteration of what I had already written, re-stating things that the police officer seemed to miss, and his hunt-and-peck typing. Another twenty-something minutes back to my apartment.**

    *I failed to look at my watch, but it was fairly lengthy.

    **I did not need a security buffer and also caught a speedier train (RE instead of S-Bahn, for the Germans).

    In my case, this is a chunk out of my day (if, admittedly, a lot of it could be used for reading); for many others, it requires taking time off from work—for a commuter, possibly the entire day.* In the latter case, questions like lost income appear. While lost income is allegedly re-imbursed, someone (i.e. the tax-payers) still has to pay for it. Then there is productivity loss for the employer (not re-imbursed), travel costs (re-imbursed), and whatnot.

    *The situation is very similar to my recent writings on deliveries and delivery times.

    To boot, the interview phase took time away from the police officer, which might have been spent with other tasks or (when factoring in similar cases Germany-wide) have led to less personnel and office costs for the police and, thereby, the tax payers.

    With a written statement sent by post, these costs and time loss would have been considerably smaller.*

    *Yes, there might be cases where a personal appearance is beneficial, e.g. because the police cannot predict the questions in advance or because the interviewed party is unable to produce a coherent text. No, this is not one of these cases: no new information appeared in the statement and any questions that might have been relevant could have easily been identified in advance. Further, the officer in question was himself a quite weak writer; and even in a case where questions were more likely to arise, a thought-through written statement would have allowed better preparations and a more productive interview at a later date.

  3. Not only did no new information appear in the statement, but I would also have been at a disadvantage if such had been needed: As is clear from the situation (cf. [1]) my memory cannot reasonably be relied on for early events, relevant information for describing the misleading information and the product at hand has been researched and put in writing (and my memory will be weaker than that writing), and if additional information was needed, I would be better of at home—with access to the Internet and the product (a DVD box, with plenty of writing on it).

    While my case is a little atypical in this regard, it will be quite usual for others to benefit from more time to think, the ability to check this-or-that in their records or on the Internet, the opportunity to order their thoughts in a more structured manner, whatnot.

    With a written statement sent by post, my input would have been more accurate and more helpful.

  4. The resulting statement, purporting to be my words, was written on the level of a high-school drop-out. This, then, is the text that will eventually be presented to (the German equivalent of) the DA’s office,* with a corresponding low credibility and lack of clarity/precision. To paraphrase an example from memory** into English: “I bought the DVDs in some store. I don’t remember where. This was a few years ago. I don’t remember when either.”***

    *In my understanding, the officer was not himself to be involved with any investigation, but merely taking a statement on behalf of the DA. He gave the verbal (possibly, incomplete) impression that taking statements in various cases was his job.

    **I was not given a copy, which is it self bad—a copy should have been handed out as a matter of course, to make sure that the signer knows what he has signed, that he has the ability to check for things accidentally left out, even at a later date, etc. (With several papers to sign, I also did not notice until too late that I had not received one.) Of course, with a written statement sent by post, I would automatically have had a copy.

    ***In contrast, something by me might have read: “Due to the length of time passed, my memory of the details is vague; however, the purchase took place in a physical store several years ago, likely 2015. If so, it was likely in [a certain store].”

    Now, my German is not perfect and a text by me might well have contained language errors. I would not have a problem with signing my name to them, however, because they are my errors. Here I have to put my name to words that absolutely would not have been written or stated by me, and that make me seem like a border-line retard—and with that I have a major problem. I was, in fact, one step away from simply refusing my signature (but decided to send in a written statement in parallel instead). To boot, there was at least one language error in the officer’s text too (an incorrect sentence break).

    With a written statement sent by post, the DA would have received a more intelligent text and would have been better able to judge me, my intentions, and my preparation.*

    *What should matter is the law and whether is has been violated, but, in real life, the persons involved will often matter too. Ditto, and with some right, whether someone just complains to the police, makes a vague statement about not remembering, and then slinks away—or whether someone makes informed and articulated statements, has a clear intent, and stands by his words.

  5. While this statement did not distort more than language, distortions of actual content, intentions, whatnot, do occur.

    In my case, it has been 50–50: The first (and so far only other) time that I gave a statement, some fifteen years ago,* non-trivial such distortions took place, both through “Chinese Whispers” and through a (natural) restriction to that which had actually been discussed. Here too, the discussion was led by the officer in a question/answer format, and he skipped over parts of what I had already submitted in writing**. (And here too, the well-short-of-Goethe formulations were the police officer’s—-not my own.) The situation was made worse by the officer insisting that he read the statement to me, and that I (the much stronger reader…) just sign it unread—I did not comply, seeing that this would have made my signature a complete travesty.

    *I am, unfortunately, a little vague on the details by now.

    **Note that this comes with a considerable risk that relevant input will never be given consideration, e.g. because someone makes a decision not to investigate further based just on the “official” statement, does not pay attention to the totality of the file during investigations, or similar.

    In the “Koch Media” case, I tried to steer against things being left out, drawing on my previous experience, but I strongly suspect that further distortions would have taken place without this effort. (Notably, I had to emphasize that I had given Koch Media an opportunity to react, and had received no such reaction, and that my previous texts explained why e.g. an accidental error on behalf of Koch Media was highly implausible.) To boot, I could only do this to the degree that I actually remembered things, which could have been a severe obstacle in a case with more events or details involved.

    With a written statement sent by post, the full events, my reasoning, whatnot, would not be in danger of distortion.

  6. The statement was also deficient in principle from another point of view: It was written as if it had simply taken down a spoken monologue, including use of quotation marks. In reality, it reflects what the officer found worth mentioning from a dialog driven by his questions. The DA is likely aware of such practices, but it is a potential source of confusion and simply unethical.

    A side-effect of this is that there is no excuse for using the language of a high-school drop-out: Because we do not have a monologue that is taken down verbatim, why should e.g. a sentence structure be used that emulates the spoken language? (But I stress that I would not have formulated myself in that manner even when speaking, as opposed to writing. People tend to speak differently than they write, but they do not automatically turn into high-school drop-outs. Indeed, if he had stated upfront what he wanted to know, I would have been able to dictate something better off the top of my head, be it stylistically or with an eye on e.g. structure).

    With a written statement sent by post, there could be no such confusion.

  7. The previous item at least points to the risk of leading questions providing an incorrect or technically-correct-but-misleading statement. While I do not claim that this happened here, such problems do occur, be it out of incompetence, prejudice, the wish to see a “politically” convenient result, or similar.

    With a written statement sent by post, this risk is reduced.

Unfortunately, the German justice system seems to have an obsession with oral statements and whatnots, even when the written word would have been superior, including for the increased ability to form a strong and thought-through argument. I can e.g. recall reading a blog post by a “Schöffe”*, who lamented that his judge had denied him access (!) to the files of a case that he was to co-judge—because the spoken word was all that mattered in court. Under such circumstances, it will be very hard for a Schöffe to do his job properly—and I have great fears as to the quality of the judge’s work too, with such an anti-intellectual attitude.

*A type of lay-judge, elected for five years, who has an equal vote with the (professional) judges in at least some trials. (Where e.g. the U.S. has a judge and a jury with different roles, Germany often has a small group of judges, some lay- some professional, simultaneously filling both roles.)

Excursion on historians and the like:
An unfortunate side-effect of this type of amateurish statement taking is that future historians who dig into the material can get an extremely wrong idea, with regard to what took place during such sessions, the education/language level of the population, and how people expressed themselves in general.* With people of individual historical interest, future biographers might be led severely astray.

*I am uncertain whether documents of this type are publicly available (now or after some time)—but a few hundred years from now, current rules are unlikely to matter in the first place.

Excursion on other problems this week:
I was originally invited* for an earlier date. Being ill, I sent an email to decline due to personal reasons, giving an indication of when I would be available. I received an automatic notification of receipt, and heard nothing more in the matter until the second invitation—accompanied by a note threatening me with a forced appearance, should I not appear voluntarily.**

*I am uncertain whether the English “subpoena” applies in this case. However, it does go beyond a regular, ignorable, invitation.

**Note that while I could see a cause for this in the case of a regular witness or the accused/suspect in a matter (when unexcused!), it seems absurd when applied to the complaining party. Here a better remedy would be to abstain from further proceedings due to non-cooperation.

As I arrived, almost the first thing out of the officer’s mouth, narrowly pre-empting my bringing the topic up, was to explain the need for this note with the claim that I had not appeared the previous time, and that I had presented no excuse for not appearing. As I pointed out my email and the notification of receipt, he claimed to have no knowledge of it.*

*I am far from certain that he was both telling the truth and innocent of own errors, e.g. of having accidentally deleted the email unread; however, it is possible that someone else is to blame, seeing that the only email address presented in the invitation was to a police-internal “mail center”, which might have failed in its promise to forward the email immediately.

Interestingly, in this email, I had made a point of mentioning my prior experiences and the drawbacks of answering questions without research time and whatnot (cf. above), and suggested a written statement based on any questions the police might have. If I had received a sensible answer to this email, all parties would have had less effort, the costs would have been smaller, and the DA would have received a more useful text…

Excursion on cross-examinations:
The above is not necessarily an argument against cross-examinations in court, notably through the difference that they allow the defense the opportunity to probe for weaknesses and contradictions in a testimony, while the above deals with an early input, at a time when the defense does not even yet exist. (However, even in court, I consider it wise for text to be the main form of input, because an oral testimony can easily and accidentally leave too much out, be too poorly reasoned, and similar.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2019 at 3:51 pm