Undercover Police (?) on ICE

I saw something weird on Wednesday as I was traveling home to Regensburg from a business trip to Nuremberg and Frankfurt — at least, it was weird to me. It was the first time I ever saw plain-clothes law enforcement officials in Germany.

I was listening to my podcasts or reading emails on my phone or something, sitting across from a colleague when I saw three guys in their mid-to-late forties in what looked like winter camping gear (jeans or cargo pants, poofy coats, long-sleeve tees or turtlenecks, 3 or 4 days of stubble, hiking boots) making conversation with the passenger in the next group of four seats behind us. I didn’t catch the beginning of the conversation, but my ears perked up when I heard the talker ask the passenger (whom I never saw)

Sprechen Sie dann andere Sprachen? Englisch? Französisch? Oh, Deutsch geht doch? OK, das ist mir viel lieber, vielen Dank.1

They positioned themselves so that the speaker was facing him directly, and the other two campers were blocking the aisle in both directions. They started off with several mundane questions, like

Wo kommen Sie her? Finnland! Mensch, das ist ganz weit oben. 2

Wohnen Sie in Deutschland? Seit wann? Und wo?3

Was ist Ihr Reiseziel? Darf ich mal in Ihren Rucksack blicken bitte? Ja, das ist mir aufgefallen. Ich dachte da war was drin. Was machen dann mit diesen Kennzeichen? Ach, sie kaufen ein Auto in Österreich. Welche Marke denn? Volvo! Kaum zu glauben! Der nordische Herr reist quer durch Deutschland um ein schwedisches Auto in Österreich zu kaufen! Jungs, ist das nicht der Hammer!?4

They pulled on some rubber gloves, took some photographs the stuff in his backpack, continuing the banter, and then moved along to the next clump of seats. This time a Polish woman caught their attention. I heard the beginning part of this interview. The speaker showed all four people sitting around the table his Ausweis5 and asked to see hers. Many of the same pleasantries ensued.

Mensch, gut dass Sie Deutsch können — mein Polnisch ist nämlich so klein!6

Und welcher Koffer gehört Ihnen? Der rote? Ist er schwer? Keine Sorge, dass schaffen wir doch locker. Vielen Dank. Nun, kommen Sie bitte mit uns, damit wir ein Paar Fragen stellen können, ohne die anderen Passagiere zu stören…7

Then the three officers and the Polish woman stepped away from her seat and out to towards the door where the carriage connects to the Bordbistro8 and they had a little more room to inspect her belongings. A few minutes later, she came back, with her stuff and ID and apparently alles paletti9. I had my hand on my passport, ready to show it and my Aufenthaltstitel10 upon request, because I was pretty sure they must have had some kind of foreigner detection mechanism at work, and I would surely be the next interviewee. Aber nein.11 They exited our carriage completely and shortly thereafter I alighted in Regensburg.

I had never seen anything like that, and when I asked my native German colleague (who has traveled via train on business trips back and forth across Germany many more times than I have), neither had she. I made extra sure to murmur geheime Polizei12 in the long form, and under no circumstances let a Gestapo slip out. I was pretty nervous, though I had absolutely no rational reason to be. Monday night at the hotel in Nuremberg I’d watched Transsiberian — a kind of creepy movie about an American couple who gets mixed up with drug smugglers and a crooked plain-clothes narcotics detective on a train in the middle of nowhere.

Have you ever seen something like that before? Or come into contact with plain-clothes officials?

  1. So do you speak any other languages? English? French? Oh, German’s OK after all? Great, I much prefer it. Thanks a lot. []
  2. Where are you from? Finland! Dude, that’s way up there! []
  3. Do you live in Germany? Since when? And where? []
  4. What is your destination? May I take a look inside your backpack please? Yeah, I noticed it. I thought there must be something inside. What are you doing with these license plates? Oh, you’re buying a car in Austria. So which brand? Volvo! Who’da thunk it? The nordic gentlemen traveling all the way across Germany to buy a Swedish car in Austria! Guys, ain’t that something!? []
  5. ID []
  6. Hoo, good thing you speak German. My Polish is just about this much. []
  7. And which of these suitcases is yours? The red one? Is it heavy? No problem, we got it, no sweat. Thanks a lot. Now, please come with us, so we can ask a few questions without disturbing your fellow passengers… []
  8. Dining car []
  9. everything A-OK []
  10. residence permit []
  11. Mais non. []
  12. secret police []

8 thoughts on “Undercover Police (?) on ICE”

  1. Tammy

    Dude, creepy! I would have been nervous too. So, are the police here following NYC’s stop and frisk of those ‘suspicious’ looking foreigners? What if they had refused to let them search their property?

  2. Tammy

    Matthias said his coworker got pulled over by similar sounding guys, totally intimidating. creepy..

  3. cliff1976

    Here’s the thing: it would not have been creepy or scary or noteworthy to me at all had they been in uniform, or if they hadn’t been so darn… pleasant. Kind of sad, that.

    I kind of wanted to figure out why they were only screening foreigners, but thought better of inserting myself into their interviews.

  4. sarahstaebler

    Wow. Strange! I would have also had my passport ready. Very intimidating.

  5. Tammy

    I am not sure how I would respond to a creepy threesome of overly friendly Germans with a supposed ID (because, really, I am sure I wouldn’t be able to turn on my German brain enough to actually read the ID with that stress) stopping and asking to search my belongings. I’d probably get myself arrested just trying to protect myself from a perceived threat!

  6. shoreacres

    Were they showing badges? What’s with the no uniform business? My first thought here would be: these dudes aren’t police at all, but pulling some sort of scam.

    You folks have anything over there like no search-and-seizure without a warrant? I sort of like our 4th amendment that guarantees that, although certain police are playing fast and loose with it these days.

    I got stopped in Galveston and pulled over for a random search two years ago. It was in a ferry line, so of course it’s all about “homeland security”. And once I got stopped on a back road in far south Texas by the Border Patrol. But in both cases, it was pretty clear who I was dealing with, and they figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t much of a threat to anyone.

    Otherwise, all my experiences have been overseas. In the Madrid airport, back when Franco still was hanging on, my bags got opened and I got to watch a soldier pick up one of my nightgowns on the end of his gun. All I remember thinking was “Don’t don’t don’t don’t show any expression….”

    Crossing from Liberia to Sierra Leone, I once got stopped at the border and had the pleasure of spending several hours in the crossing guards’ hut because I wouldn’t pay the bribe.

    I always consoled myself with the thought that such things couldn’t happen in America. I’d not put a dime on it, now.

  7. cliff1976

    The one doing the talking showed an ID right at the beginning of the interview. I didn’t get a clear look at it (it wasn’t shown to me). I really couldn’t say if it was convincing enough at first glance, or whether I would have wanted independent confirmation. You know, like when you are pulled over on a deserted road and you’re not really sure it’s a police car making you stop, you’re supposed to be authorized to call the local PD and verify that it’s really a police officer . What could I have done in that situation on the train? Probably nothing. At most I might have whipped out a pen and written down the name from the ID and the department (police? immigration? customs/border patrol? who knows?)

    I don’t know if there is a 4th Amendment-style right that citizens, or adult humans in general, have in Germany — I did some googling and found translations of sections of the Grundgesetz, Germany’s constitution. But those appeared to apply to searching a residence or residence. I couldn’t find anything about searching travellers (neither in a personal vehicle nor in a public transportation vehicle like the high-speed international train I was on at the time). Nevertheless, I’ve been told several times over the last twenty-plus years not to expect the same rights to due process, warrants, against summary detainment, etc. outside of the USA that many in the USA take for granted.

  8. CN Heidelberg

    Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that except when crossing borders. We got pulled over one time crossing into Poland, and another time we saw a random Passport check when crossing into France on the train. But I don’t think either encounter involved searching our things.

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