From Berlin to Kintore

02 January 2015
Berlin, Germany and Kintore in remote Northern Territory - two places that couldn't be more different. A Berlin Detectives experience in the remote Northern Territory community of Kintore
Max on the way out to Kiwirrkurra
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Detective Max Lysander Hornberger, Berlin Police

On the one hand Berlin, the capital of Germany with a population of about 3.5 million people, one of the most vibrant major cities in Europe, surrounded by the rest of densely inhabited Germany and lying only about 80 km away from the border to Poland. On the other hand a small Aboriginal community with a population of about 450 people in the middle of the Australian desert, so remote that a drive to Alice Springs, the closest town by far, takes about 10 hours when conditions are good.

Being a young German Detective with the Berlin Police Force I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the first week of December with the Northern Territory Police Force at Kintore Police Station - both as a visitor and witness. Not a witness in the criminological sense, but in the sense of experiencing how police work is done and has to be done in this remote community.

It was an amazing and extraordinary experience, not least because of the nice welcome and introduction to this new environment by our great colleagues in Kintore.

From life back home I am used to crowded streets, hundreds of strangers passing me each day on public transport, most of them not even looking at me. At work in Berlin crime reports in numbers of up to three digits are counted in some departments every day, many of them filled with details of people that we have never met before and will never meet again. Work back home often feels rushed and impersonal, the inner gap between us and our "clients" is rarely crossed and even the Berlin Police Force has a staff of about 16,500 people.

Kintore on the contrary has two local Police Officers (and one Western Australian Police Officer stationed there from another community 200 km away). They work every single case that occurs out there, they even take over the part of prosecutors in the local court proceedings and they know almost every community member by their full name. They literally live across the street from them; they know their stories, their families, their habits and their problems.

In this Aboriginal Community the bulk of work is talking and listening, in other words - networking. As a Police Officer in an Aboriginal Community you rely on the people, you need their trust to be successful. In Kintore, many problems can be solved just by talking. This system works, if you know your counterparts, mutual respect exists and you are yourself a socially competent person. If not all of these conditions apply together though, as is often the case in major city police work, the system can easily fail.

In Berlin talking is important as well, but often not enough, unfortunately. Cases are bigger, more complicated and often require covert operations. However, if there are no reliable witnesses to a case and the suspects themselves do not confess, we have a wide range of other measures at our disposal to reach the targeted goal. In Kintore many of such measures are just not possible, because resources are very limited and mostly not even useful, because occurring cases do not supply the relevant preconditions.

Then again a closer link to the community as it exists in Kintore does not only include the "clients" themselves, but all community members, the local services, such as social workers, the health service, the school, representatives of the local government and so on. Living and working close to one another requires working cooperatively together. Too often have I imagined the same thing back home, how helpful it would be to work closer together with the other social services, but in Berlin it just doesn't work out the way it should.

Police work in the Australian desert and in any other remote areas across the world has to be very, very different to police work in any major city, whether Australia, Germany or in any other country. That doesn't mean though that work in an Aboriginal Community is always easier or less stressful, let alone less possessive than in a busy city. Who will drive out to take care of every emergency situation in the middle of the night, if not the only two existing officers? Who will be on call every weekend if not them? And admittedly - often it is better to know your "clients" well, but not always, especially if you're the one who brought them in jail the last time. Luckily, the great majority of Kintore community members are a very nice bunch of people, the Aboriginal people are still very close to their traditional culture and at the same time amazingly open-minded and friendly, even to me as a total stranger and Police Officer at that.

Comparing all these and many more influencing differences and also similarities between the two ways of policing, it seems unreasonable to ask which way may be the better one. In my opinion that really depends on the circumstances. Nonetheless I got the personal impression that being close to the community you work in is at least a more gratifying way of doing police work.

Therefore, I can say that I can very well imagine working out there for a while, even though or precisely because it would be a big change to what I'm used to. I am definitely thankful to have been granted the opportunity of this insight and while knowing that even many Australians won't ever go this far into the depths of their own country, I do strongly encourage them to do so!