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GERMANS RAISE ISSUE OF POLICE BIAS

A string of police-brutality scandals has prompted wide reconsideration of the way German authorities treat minorities and raised the question whether there might be less racial violence if officers here in Western Europe's most-populous nation were better integrated.

"I think it's great - now even the conservative newspapers are putting this issue on the front page," says Manfred Mahr, a police officer himself and founder of a watchdog group called the Federal Working Group of Critical Police Officers.Police brutality directed at minorities and foreigners residing in Germany is nothing new, but it has been made sensational in recent months by incidents such as these:

- In Berlin, an entire city police unit was dissolved when it was learned that some members had been harassing residents and buying their own equipment, particularly wooden clubs, which would deliver more punishing blows than the standard-issue rubber clubs.

- In Hannover, a 16-year-old Kurdish youth was fatally shot in the back by an officer while hanging up posters for a banned political group; police say an officer's side arm discharged accidentally while the victim fled. But a study showed the gun had been fired from less than a foot away.

- In Berlin, there were 51 reports of unprovoked assaults on Vietnamese curbside cigarette peddlers under investigation as of late August.

- In Bernau, just north of Berlin, seven police were suspended for beating Vietnamese peddlers, including one who said a customs official had attempted to rape him.

- In July, the human-rights group Amnesty International pointed to a "clear" rise in the incidence of police brutality in Berlin.

But the case that, more than any other, has brought police misbehavior into the news here has been the resignation of Werner Hackmann, who as interior minister was the top law-and-order figure for the city-state of Hamburg. He left office earlier this month amid criticism over the handling of the police beating of a 44-year-old Senegalese man.

The police in that incident were drunk; the African wound up in the hospital. He said he believes that officers attacked him because he was wearing a "No room for Nazis" sticker on his cap. In May, the officers appeared at a closed internal hearing and were let off with fines.

Initially, Hackmann defended the handling of the case, as he had on occasions when police in Hamburg - a rough-and-tumble port city - were accused of racial violence. But then another officer came forward saying that his colleagues had beaten 11 more foreigners in the basement of a lock-up near Hamburg's central train station. Hackmann decided to quit.

In doing so, he made the surprising admissions that he was "deeply ashamed" of the police and that violence was rising to unacceptable levels.

"I asked myself whether I should let myself suffer through this any longer, or whether it might be better to resign, and to send out a signal that would wake people up," he said.

Mahr observed that this "was the first time in German history that an interior minister said, `Yes, there is an exaggerated esprit de corps, there is xenophobia within the police, and there are mechanisms that keep the police from being properly controlled.' This is very important."