BERLIN – German authorities disbanded an elite state police unit and stopped 18 of its active members after it was found that they had participated in a chat group that exchanged racist messages and glorified the Nazis, Hessen’s interior minister said on Thursday.
The move against the unit – roughly similar to a SWAT team in the United States – in Frankfurt was the last of the German authorities to halt the rise of far-right networks in several state security and military units. Police officers in several countries have been fired or reprimanded for participating in such chat groups, where content such as swastikas, images of Hitler and posts against foreigners are shared on social media.
The recently opened chat group includes three supervising officers from the elite squad, although they appear to have been inactive, making the disbandment of the entire unit inevitable, according to state authorities.
The 18 removed officers have been charged with handing over symbols banned by the constitution and racist hate content, and supervisors will face additional charges for failing to intervene or report conversations.
“The unacceptable misconduct of several members, as well as the turning a blind eye to SEK Frankfurt’s immediate superiors, necessitated its complete dissolution,” said Peter Beut, Hessen’s interior minister, referring to a SWAT-like unit of her German initials.
Mr Rudolph and other state lawmakers have criticized the police and Conservative government leaders, including Mr Beut, for their tendency to dismiss episodes involving right-wing police officers as isolated cases, ignoring the wider problem of like-minded groups and persons throughout the country.
In the most significant development of the country’s efforts to eliminate extremism in law enforcement and the military, the Ministry of Defense was forced last year to disband a full combat company of the country’s most elite special forces unit, known by its German initials KSK, because right infiltration.
Authorities took the dramatic move after authorities conducted a large-scale investigation into far-right structures in the unit and just six weeks after authorities dug up an illegal weapons cache in the backyard of one of the company’s soldiers.
The chat room was most active in 2016 and 2017, according to officials, and was discovered by coincidence when a member of the department’s mobile devices were analyzed for child pornography in an unrelated case.
The Frankfurt State Prosecutor’s Office is investigating 20 men between the ages of 29 and 54 who belong to two different chat groups, where they mock refugees and share Nazi symbols. Of these, 18 were active members of the SEK, one was in another police unit, and one was already retired.
The investigation was first made public on Wednesday when authorities raided six homes and suspended all 18 elite police officers.
In the past, the police in Frankfurt, where the elite unit was located, were subject to strict control. A series of far-right threats against immigrant activists, lawyers and politicians, launched in 2018, have been traced to the city’s police computers.
In one case, a police computer used to access the personal information of a female lawyer who was threatened was connected to a police officer who belonged to a separate far-right chat group.
Last month, police arrested a man in Berlin for making these threats. Although the man is not connected to the police, those who were threatened are suspected of complicity in police.
Stefan Müller, the head of the state police in Hesse, said that the state police would restore the SEK unit to replace the old one, but it would be restructured with a stronger focus on the reporting management.
“They are one of the guarantors of security and should therefore be even freer from unacceptable violations,” he said.