Cologne’s police chief has been removed from his post amid criticism of his force’s handling of a string of sexual assaults and robberies carried out by groups of men in the German city on New Year’s Eve.
Wolfgang Albers, 60, had been criticised for the handling of the violence, with a leaked police report describing this week how officers were initially overwhelmed by events outside the city’s train station, after which more than 100 women filed criminal complaints of sexual assault and robbery, including two accounts of rape.
Cologne police said on Friday that Albers is being sent into early retirement by the state government. They said North Rhine-Westphalia’s governing Cabinet will formally discuss the decision on Tuesday but Albers will not return to his job.
Albers had faced mounting criticism both for the police’s handling of last week’s events and of the fallout.
Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker suggested Friday that police had held back information from her, and said in a statement that her “trust in the Cologne police leadership is significantly shaken.”
The leaked police report, obtained by the German newspaper Bild, said women were forced to “run a gauntlet … beyond description” to reach or leave the station.
Earlier the German interior ministry said asylum seekers were among those involved in the violence, with spokesman Tobias Plate saying 18 of the 32 people arrested were asylum seekers suspected of crimes ranging from theft to assault. None was suspected of committing sexual assaults of the kind that prompted outrage in Germany over the past week.
Plate said the vast majority of the 32 criminal acts documented by federal police on the night were related to theft and bodily injury. Three were related to sexual assaults, but police had no names linked to them.
Of the 32 people detained, nine were Algerian, eight Moroccan, five Iranian, and four Syrian. Two German citizens, an Iraqi, a Serb and a US citizen were also among those detained.
The incidents in and around the square in front of the main train station have led to accusations of a police and media cover-up to avoid anti-foreigner sentiment following Angela Merkel’s open-door policy towards refugees and migrants. More than a million refugees have entered Germany in the past 12 months.
The chancellor said on Thursday the New Year assaults were unacceptable and that deportation policy needed to be continually under review “to send a clear signal to people who do not want to stick to our legal framework”.
“The feeling women had in this case, of being at people’s mercy without any protection, is intolerable for me personally as well. And so it is important for everything that happened there to be put on the table.”
Merkel said she would change the law on deportations and increase police numbers. “We must also keep talking about the basis of our cultural coexistence in Germany and what people rightly expect is that actions follow words,” she added.
Victims have described their attackers as being Arab or north African in appearance but a Cologne lawyer joined a growing number of people on Thursday who insisted the description was incomplete.
“Clients I’ve spoken to who were there at the station to peacefully see in the new year say that there were also Albanian, Kurds, Montenegrins, Syrians and Iraqis involved in the tumult,” said Mehdi Labidi, a Tunisian-German.
Germany’s justice minister said asylum seekers could be deported if they were found to have participated in the attacks.
Evidence has emerged that similar attacks had taken place in seven other German cities. After Cologne, Hamburg appears to have been the worst affected. Out of a total of 167 complaints to police of attacks in the cities – around two-thirds of them being described as sexual assault, including two cases of rape – 100 relate to Cologne, and 53 to Hamburg.
Meanwhile, Finnish police reported an unusually high level of sexual harassment in Helsinki on New Year’s Eve and said they had been tipped off about plans by groups of asylum seekers to sexually harass women.
Helsinki’s deputy police chief, Ilkka Koskimaki, said: “There hasn’t been this kind of harassment on previous New Year’s Eves or other occasions for that matter … This is a completely new phenomenon in Helsinki.”
Security guards hired to patrol the city on New Year’s Eve told police there had been widespread sexual harassment at a central square where around 20,000 people had gathered for celebrations.
Swedish police said at least 15 young women had reported being groped by groups of men on New Year’s Eve in the city of Kalmar. A spokesman said groups of men encircled women on a crowded square and groped them. He said no one was physically injured but many of those targeted were terrified.