A new investigation released today by Forensic Architecture (FA) and its Berlin sister organization Forensis identifies several key failings in the police response to a 2020 racist terrorist attack in Hanau, Germany, that led to the murder of nine people and the injury of five. The shooting spree was perpetrated by a far-right extremist who targeted two shisha bars primarily frequented by people of Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds before he drove home and killed his mother and himself.
“Our findings underscore what the families of the victims, survivors of the attack, and their allies, have been saying for more than two years: The police response on the night of the attack was a failure,” Robert Trafford, research coordinator for FA, said in a statement. “Every citizen of Hanau, of Hessen, and of Germany should be shocked at the lackluster approach of local police to a murderous extremist: They did not keep eyes on him, they let civilians walk and drive right past him, and they failed to communicate basic information among themselves.”
Late last year, through evaluating CCTV footage captured on six cameras, FA and Forensis concluded that the closure of an emergency exit door was a major factor in the five deaths that took place at Arena Bar, the second bar the shooter visited that night. According to survivors of the attack, the fact that the emergency exit door was kept locked was well-known to regulars.
“We would have run to the emergency exit, but everyone knew it was locked. It had been locked for years,” one survivor said. Specifically, FA and Forensis’s analysis indicated that had the exit door been open, and had the five young men attempted to escape through it, they could have all survived the attack. This finding contradicted the public prosecutor’s assumption during legal proceedings that it was unknown whether victims would have been able to make it to the door had it been unlocked.
FA and Forensis’s 2021 report suggested that the emergency exit was possibly locked due to a “troubling history of over-policing, including surveillance, and frequent police raids.” Ashkan Cheheltan, a researcher at FA/Forensis involved in this investigation, said that while the conclusion was not enough to establish the partial culpability of the police, it does raise questions that have as of yet not been thoroughly considered during the official parliamentary inquiry.
“Was the door locked, or was it not? Why was it locked? Why hasn’t it been looked into?” he asked in an interview with Hyperallergic.
The most recent leg of FA’s investigation asks what took place once the gunman returned home and fired three shots around 1am, three hours after the initial shooting rampage, killing himself and his mother. His father, who harbored similar racist ideologies as his son, was in the house that same night and survived. When the final murder of the gunman’s mother and his own suicide transpired, special forces claimed they were surveilling the home immediately outside but that they did not hear any gunshots. The gunman’s father said that the only shots he heard that night came from outside the house. Compounding the confusion of these accounts, although police knew the address of the perpetrator, they did not enter his home for four and a half hours.
FA researchers probed a number of questions related to these testimonies from police and the gunman’s father. Was the father truthful in his report of what he heard? Were police truthful in their statement that they could not hear the gunshots, and if so, what would that indicate about their whereabouts? When and where were police stationed after the gunman returned home?
To answer these questions, FA examined case files and the father’s testimony, reviewed footage from a police helicopter that was flying overhead, and collaborated with Anderson Acoustics to design a sound experiment. The experiment involved playing the sounds of successive shots in a house similar to the gunman’s, allowing researchers to determine where they would have been audible. They concluded that the gunshots would have been manifestly audible in the surrounding neighborhood.
From this, researchers concluded that the father’s testimony that he could not hear the gunshots was implausible. They also showed that there was a discrepancy between the police’s account that the gunshots were inaudible and the time of death of the gunman’s mother, suggesting that they were not in a location where they could properly surveil the house. Their report additionally showed that police officers dispatched to the home only surveilled the front door of the house for 18 minutes total in the two hours following the attack, and that the police helicopter — which was not given the perpetrator’s address — was only able to monitor the home for 14 minutes that night.
Though focused on the incident in Germany, FA’s report comes as mass shootings proliferate at an alarming rate in the United States. Since the horrific killing of 19 children and three teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the local police’s response, which has been criticized as inadequate.
Cheheltan indicated that the investigation has already led to calls for political accountability. Earlier today, the Social Democratic Party of Germany of Hesse, the state where Hanau is located, called for the resignation of the Interior Minister of Hesse in light of the findings.
“The blunt mishandlings of the police around the perpetrator’s house at the night of the attack must be viewed in light of the overall chain of state failures and controversies that have since been exposed: the unanswered emergency calls, the locked emergency exit of the Arena bar, the racist treatment of families and survivors, the presence of right-wing SEK officers on duty that night,” Dimitra Andritsou, research coordinator at Forensis, said in a statement.
“The struggle of the families and their allies for a complete clarification of these questions has not yet been heard — much like the shots around the perpetrator’s house. In fact, the state’s refusal to hear — on the night of the crime, and for many years afterwards — is a political choice, and indicative of deeply entrenched racist structures within the German state.”