On New Year's Eve, while most people were busy drinking the night away, a number of men sexually assaulted and robbed multiple women on the square in front of the central train station in Cologne, Germany. As of Tuesday, the police had produced a list of 90 charges, including one for rape. "We have no suspects at this time," Cologne's Chief of Police, Wolfgang Albers, said at a press conference yesterday afternoon. Officials must now go through the extensive video material that has been handed over to them since the incidents.
According to police reports, the situation around the central station on New Year's Eve was totally chaotic. Around four or five hundred people were already gathered at 9 PM on the cathedral steps; allegedly all young men, between 18 and 35 years old, and apparently of North African descent. The police noticed the group because they seemed heavily intoxicated and began lighting fireworks among the crowd. Two hours later, the number of people on the square grew to 1000. The mood turned, becoming more and more aggressive. The police marshal on duty, Michael Temme, described the inebriated men as "totally uninhibited." As a result, the police cleared the steps and the square, yet the crowd regrouped around 12:45 AM.
That night both local and federal police received a number of initial complaints of sexual harassment and theft. The police subsequently focused their forces around the train station, purposefully approaching women and accompanying them through the crowd to the train station entrance, according to officer Temme. By that time, groups of two to 20 men had allegedly begun to form within the large crowd, circling women and in some cases touching them inappropriately and robbing them. "We're familiar with thefts in which women are touched inappropriately on purpose to be distracted," a spokesperson for the Cologne Police Department told VICE. "But being surrounded by groups of men in the process—that is a totally new phenomenon."
That kind of ploy is meant to protect the perpetrators, as German Police Union chairman, Rainer Wendt, explained to radio station NDR Info: "It is a collusion among the perpetrators that uses the crowd of people, darkness, and the surprise effect to get away with a crime without being recognized."
Some pickpockets, who also harassed women in the process, were arrested at the same train station on January 3. However, whether these men were involved in what happened on New Year's Eve is still unclear.
Cologne's mayor, Henriette Reker, suggests that women keep men at an arm's length and avoid walking with strangers. The hashtag #eineArmlänge (an arm's length) was trending yesterday on German-speaking Twitter, with numerous users calling this statement a misapplication of victim/perpetrator roles.
What's clear is that witnesses are having a hard time recognizing perpetrators. "Imagine you're surrounded by men, they're all trying to grope you and you're just trying to protect your body. You'd hardly be able to say more about their faces than that they looked young and of North African descent," a spokeswoman for the Cologne Police Department explained to VICE.
Mayor Reker also noted yesterday that many of the women didn't immediately place distress calls because they were afraid their phones would be snatched from their hands.
Meanwhile, the Federal Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, promised that the case would be examined carefully. He said that the ministry is working intensely to identify the perpetrators. He also spoke of those witnesses who chose to idly stand around while the attacks took place: "Anybody who prevented women from being able to escape are moving within the scope of complicity."
"We reckon that further charges will be made over the next few days," said Police Chief Albers at a press conference on Tuesday. "Around two thirds of the complaints were made by people who don't live in Cologne. It will take some time for them to report to us."