Cologne's police chief removed from job following NYE assaults
In this Oct. 23, 2015 file picture, the head of Cologne police, Wolfgang Albers, attends a news conference, in Cologne , Germany. (Rolf Vennenbernd / dpa via AP)
Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans, The Associated Press
Published Friday, January 8, 2016 11:07AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 8, 2016 6:40PM EST
BERLIN -- The police chief of the German city of Cologne was dismissed Friday amid mounting criticism of his force's handling of a string of New Year's Eve sexual assaults and robberies blamed largely on foreigners.
The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia said it was sending Wolfgang Albers into early retirement, and the 60-year-old commander said he understood the reasons why.
The state's interior minister, Ralf Jaeger, said Albers' removal was "necessary to restore public trust and the Cologne police's ability to act with a view to upcoming major events." Cologne's annual Carnival is next month.
Albers had faced mounting criticism for the police response to New Year's Eve attacks on women by groups of men within a 1,000-strong crowd described by police as predominantly Arab or North African in origin.
The German government said 31 suspects were briefly detained for questioning after the New Year's Eve trouble, among them 18 asylum-seekers. The 31 included nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one person each from Iraq, Serbia and the United States.
None of the 31 has been accused of specifically committing sexual assaults, the aspect of Cologne's disturbances that attracted most public outrage at home and abroad. Cologne police say they have received 170 criminal complaints connected to the New Year's festivities, 120 of them sexual in nature.
Police failed to mention the attacks around Cologne's main train station in their initial morning report on New Year's Day, describing overnight festivities as "largely peaceful."
Albers acknowledged that mistake earlier this week, but he dismissed widespread criticism that his officers reacted too slowly in response to reports of assaults and harassment of women.
However, an internal police report published in German media Thursday characterized Cologne's police as overwhelmed and described how women were forced to run through gantlets of drunken men outside the station.
Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker suggested Friday that police had withheld information from her, including on the origin of suspects. She said that her "trust in the Cologne police leadership is significantly shaken."
Albers rejected suggestions that police had deliberately withheld information. However, in a statement following his removal, Albers said he understood Jaeger's decision to remove him.
He said the police handling of New Year's trouble in Cologne must be investigated and "the public debate surrounding me is liable to complicate and delay this work."
Earlier Friday, Germany's Interior Ministry said federal police had detained 31 men on suspicion of committing crimes including theft, assault and, in one case, verbal abuse of a sexual nature. Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said those detained were believed to have been members of the crowd in front of the Cologne railway station on New Year's Eve.
Plate said authorities were investigating whether the assaults were connected to reports of similar offences in other German cities.
Police in other European nations reported cases of similar trouble in public places, particularly near train stations, fueling speculation the events might have been co-ordinated.
In Sweden, police said at least 15 young women reported being groped by groups of men on New Year's Eve in the city of Kalmar. Police spokesman Johan Bruun said two men, both asylum-seekers, have been told via interpreter that they are suspected of committing sexual assaults. He said police are trying to identify other suspects.
In Finland, police said they received tipoffs on New Year's Eve that about 1,000 predominantly Iraqi asylum seekers were intending to gather near the main railway station in Helsinki and harass passing women. Police there said they received three complaints of harassment and detained several asylum-seekers at the scene for alleged inappropriate behaviour.
Reports of the harassment have fueled calls for tighter immigration laws in Germany, particularly from politicians opposed to Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy that allowed nearly 1.1 million people fleeing war and poverty to enter the country last year.
Government spokesman Georg Streiter said the chancellor wants "the whole truth" about the events in Cologne and "nothing should be held back and nothing should be glossed over."
He said the trouble in Cologne "doesn't just harm our rule of law but also the great majority of completely innocent refugees who have sought protection."
Associated Press reporter Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.