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.
Wolfgang Albers had faced mounting criticism for the police response to attacks on women by groups of men within a 1,000-strong crowd described by police as predominantly Arab or North African in origin.
Albers’ dismissal comes amid a flurry of disconcerting allegations over the behavior of foreigners at time when large groups of migrants, mostly from Syria, are flooding into Europe.
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.”
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, which allowed nearly 1.1 million people fleeing war and poverty to enter the country last year.
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 the 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.
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 offenses 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 coordinated.
In Sweden, police said at least 15 young women reported being groped by groups of men on New Year’s Eve in Kalmar. Police spokesman Johan Bruun said two men, both asylum seekers, have been told through an 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 for alleged inappropriate behavior.
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, the former police chief, acknowledged that mistake but dismissed widespread criticism that his officers had reacted too slowly in response to reports of assaults and harassment of women.
However, an internal police report published in German media on 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.”