Police without borders: Europeans collaborate to catch criminals

|     Birgit Reichert     |

LUXEMBOURG (dpa) – Four police officers sit together at a desk in the duty room, databases open on their screens and phones at the ready, working seamlessly as they call out information in French and German.

Each comes from a different country – Germany, Luxembourg, France or Belgium – but together they help solve crimes in the region.

“We’ve already helped identify quite a few criminals,” says chief inspector Thomas Kiefer, the German coordinator of the joint centre for police and customs cooperation based in Luxembourg.

Some 40 police and customs officials from 11 authorities are based at the centre, where they can exchange information immediately.

This is useful in a range of cases, from finding the instigators of a nightclub brawl in Germany who had come from a border region, to helping authorities with the processing of asylum applications.

Thomas Kiefer, left, German coordinator of the joint centre for police and customs cooperation based in Luxembourg, poses next to flags with his Luxembourg colleague, Roland Weber
Four police officials from four different countries work in the duty room of the joint centre for police and customs cooperation in Luxembourg
Police from four European nations work together at the joint centre for police and customs cooperation based in Luxembourg
A German police official works in the duty room of the joint centre for police and customs cooperation in Luxembourg. Some 40 police and customs officials from 11 authorities are based at the centre, where they can share information immediately

By comparing photos and fingerprints, they can, for example, determine whether an applicant has already applied and been rejected in a neighbouring country.

“Without direct contact with our colleagues here at the centre, there’s probably a lot that we would never find out,” says Luxembourg’s coordinator Roland Weber.

The team can also compare similar crimes, says Weber. By looking to see whether a burglary committed in Germany shows similar patterns to ones committed across the borders can often turn up results.

“We can quickly establish that the perpetrators travel across the borders,” says Weber. “We put pieces of the puzzle together that otherwise would be hardly possible to know cross-border. That helps investigators with their work.”

The centre, which is located near Luxembourg’s Findel airport, was set up 15 years ago, founded on February 25, 2002, by the governments of Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. Prior to that, there was already an agreement between France and Luxembourg for two years.

“From 2003, all four nations were under the same roof,” says Weber.

The number of queries the centre receives is considerable – a total of 341,290 by the end of 2017.

The centre is the only one in which four countries work together, though there are 40 such centres within the European Union.

In Kehl, in south-western Germany, there is a joint investigative centre with France, as well as one in Padborg, Denmark, where German police work together with Danish police. In Swiecko, in western Poland, there is a centre where Germans work together with Poles.

The team in Luxembourg does not hit the streets to dig up clues. “We’re not investigative officials, but we support them,” says Weber.

They instead often deliver invaluable information to investigators.

For example, a few years ago, a customs official was deliberately run over in Luxembourg, said the 49-year-old chief inspector. But with the help of the Belgians, the perpetrator was quickly identified.

And after a car was stolen from Saarbruecken, in Germany, it was located in Belgium after officials tracked its GPS coordinates.

“They can drive over four land borders within 200 kilometres here,” says Kiefer. “And we can pass on the information straightaway.”

The centre is also sometimes asked to help when suspicions are raised during routine traffic controls. “They can call up and ask whether someone has already drawn attention in a border region,” says Weber. “There are lots of fields where you can argue it makes sense,” says Kiefer, adding that there are no language barriers at the centre.

Now and then, there’s a debate about whether the centre should remain open 24 hours a day, rather than its current hours of 8 am to 5pm.

“You have to think about what the centre’s focus is,” says Kiefer. As a support centre, the current office hours are fine. However, if more “operative support” is needed, longer hours might be necessary. – Text and photos by dpa