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Policing the Oktoberfest

More than six million people from around the world attended Munich, Germany’s Oktoberfest. It is the largest such festival in the world, a super-sized party known for its drinking festivities. In 2003, a total of 6,200,000 liters of beer, 36,000 liters of wine and 22,000 bottles of sparkling wine were sold.

In the huge crowds, the good and the bad, the intoxicated and the sober, the predators and the victims are thrown in together. To keep order, the Bavarian State Police marshaled their forces to promote public safety, stand between law obedience and merrymaking madness, and settle the differences that may arise among people of many nationalities. Police planning for an Oktoberfest takes an entire year.

Oktoberfest brings a lot of money into the Munich area. About €950 million (EURO) was spent on food, drinks, entertainment, shopping, and transportation. Oktoberfest employed about 12,000 people. This translates to 1,250 million US dollars. In 2004, about 750 arrests were made and 13 officers were injured.

Crowd Control Psychology

According to Polizeioberrat, POR, (Lieutenant Colonel) Gerhard Bayer, up to six million people attended Oktoberfest during its 16 days. Since the festival takes place in the center of the city, parking spaces are limited. Police had difficulty controlling the arrival of the partygoers because they used the public transportation system: buses, streetcars, and the subway.

The Oktoberfest grounds cover 104 acres, with beer halls seating 98,000 people. On these grounds, up to 350 police officers were on duty at one time. They were divided into 19 different task forces (units). Each task force operated for 12 days, eight to 10 hours a day.

From strategic locations, officers were able to deal quickly with problems such as accidents in the kitchens or at the roundabouts, sudden changes in the weather, and overcrowded toilet facilities (at the festival, there were about 1,440 toilets with 17 for physically disabled people).

European visitors and those from the other continents all had varying views of police. Some of the problems police faced involved communication—people spoke different languages or were intoxicated. Unprovoked, sudden attacks against police officers resulted in the individuals being charged with aggression against police officers.

Police officers also dealt with people under the influence of alcoholic beverages and a combination of drugs of abuse like methamphetamine (speed). Typically, arresting such people required more police. A number of visitors to the Oktoberfest considered themselves to be in some sort of a free zone, where rules and laws did not apply or where such restrictions were made for others and not themselves.

Police at Oktoberfest also found themselves in the spotlight because people and the media honed in on their activities with cameras, video cameras, and cellular telephones with photo capabilities. Large numbers of international professional media were also present.

In their quest for interesting photos, crews wanted to accompany the police; at times they tried to influence police work or obstruct it. However, the police considered good cooperation with the media a necessity, and a press office was established to coordinate media requests.

In the beer halls, the police worked in cooperation with 800 to 1,000 unarmed members of private security organizations to prevent overcrowding in the halls. The problem was that many such security job applicants did not have the basic educational requirements for the job and lacked training in how to handle intoxicated individuals. These security people also had a poor reputation with the general public. Sometimes there were difficulties between security staff and beer hall visitors.

In general, the police were not responsible for problems within the beer halls until they were called in to deal with criminal offenses and disorderly conduct. According to law, the private security people could only detain perpetrators caught red-handed until the arrival of the police.

Police addressed these concerns early by training security staffs before the Oktoberfest, and by assigning a commanding patrol officer as the superior of all the police task forces who also acted as a contact between the police and security staffs.

No riots occurred during the Oktoberfest due to a strong police presence, but there were quarrels between intoxicated people, and juveniles caused trouble over ethnic differences. Police officers did not tolerate aggressive conduct—similar to our “zero tolerance” policies. Also, a program concerning sexual harassment was in place.

Oktoberfests generally are not the place for political protest activities, and this year there were no such activities. One exception was when, in 1980, a single, right wing radical conducted a bomb attack at an entrance.

But because of the times, the entire unfenced Oktoberfest area could have been a target for radical Islamic terrorist organizations. Oktoberfest might be looked on as an example of decadent Western living including bad behavior and the consumption of alcoholic beverages. If terrorists had struck, there could have been large numbers of casualties.

In this regard, the Bavarian State Police worked with the Bavarian Secret Service (the office responsible for defending the constitution) and with supporting police forces like Bereitschaftspolizei (Bepo)—a special readiness police. Other police units were in reserve. Police countermeasures included good public relations and a show of force at entrances. Additional coordination and rescue planning were done with fire department personnel and paramedics to care for injured people.


Each subdivision of the Bavaria State Police’s Munich Police Department, with its 7,200 police officers and civilian employees, sent officers to the Oktoberfest. A core of 400 highly motivated officers was needed; these were all volunteers. There is a saying that all of Munich’s police have to work the Oktoberfest during their careers. Overtime pay came out of a special police budget. Since this was a planned operation, vacation and other time off duty did not need to be cancelled.

Bereitschaftspolizei (Bepo)

For the first time officers of this specialized force were requested for the 2004 Oktoberfest. The Bepo, which is the Federal German Police, train for a much longer period than do their North American counterparts. They are assigned to police training barracks for two years or longer before being assigned to normal street duties.

Once the newly minted police officers have passed their final exam and have become career officers, they are in the top grade Bepo formations for a few more years and work out of a barracks organization.

In addition to training, Bepo’s other chief function is to act as a mobile, emergency police reserve. As a form of readiness police, they are organized and trained in unit formations. Besides platoon equivalents, there is the basic company-like Bepo unit known as the Hundertscaft, traditionally based on a hundred officers.

This number is due to Roman influence. In Roman times such units ate, sheltered, and lived together, although today this unit usually numbers more than a hundred officers or cadets.

Three, or in some states four, platoons make up a Hundertschaft that is led by a police major (Erster Polizeihauptkommissar) or a lieutenant colonel (Polizeioberrat). This unit has its own transportation and supplies so it can be sent anywhere in the country in support of other police forces.

At the Oktoberfest, while traditional police officers wore their normal leather jackets and peaked police hats, Bepo officers wore what is known as a green combat suit. This did not include visible bulletproof vests or a SWAT-like look, which might have produced a warlike or negative image to Oktoberfest visitors.

For the festival, Bepo officers were divided into a half dozen task forces to support traditional police task forces. They performed the same jobs, with special enforcement emphasis given to juveniles and adults consuming drugs of abuse and being on the lookout for children under the age of 16 in the beer tents without their parents. Since the many Bepo officers trained in Munich, they knew the area and various policing situations.

At the entrances to the Oktoberfest, Bepo officers checked visitor’s bags and pockets, the rationale being that if the visitors felt safe, they would react to bad situations in a cooler manner. Bepo forces also served as a tactical reserve.

Stationary Cameras

Video cameras were considered a valuable tactical tool. Twelve cameras were installed in such hot spot areas as the subway, juvenile meeting places, dark and fear-producing areas behind beer halls, main walking areas, beer festival hallways, and the roundabout. Dispatchers and special monitor observers watched the targeted locations and coordinated information with the local task forces.

As a tool, this stationary video camera monitoring saved the police from making needless responses. By checking the monitoring screens, falsely reported situations were identified.

In real crime situations, the video information aided in the search for perpetrators and witnesses. The state police and the City of Munich paid the expense of video camera monitoring. Such video records were filed for court proceedings and usually were deleted after two months. Due to video camera monitoring, there were fewer pickpocket and drug offenses reported than in past years.

This year the police had a newly built police building on the Oktoberfest grounds with video monitoring documentation of each room to counter complaints of excessive use of force. In 2004, there were no excessive use-of-force charges against officers.

Computer Support System

All arrested people were registered through a computer program especially developed by the police of Munich and altered to fit the needs of policing the Oktoberfest.

A sufficient number of interpreters were available to deal with verbal communication barriers. Also, nonverbal communications were employed so as to be clear to citizens of other countries. To handle investigations where questioning could only be done with the help of an interpreter, officers who spoke Italian, Spanish, and French were available at a police building; English is taught to German police officers during their basic academy days.

In the future, they plan to have interpreters available in Russian and Eastern European languages. Leaflets were printed in several languages stating what misbehaviors were forbidden. For example, Oktoberfest leaflets were sent to Italian RV rental companies to avoid parking problems at the event. Pictograms and radio messages were also used.

An operation as large as Oktoberfest takes long-term preparation. The police and others have to do their homework. For policing the 2004 Oktoberfest, all selected police officers were specially trained. This meant a change from their basic police behavior where the officers usually conduct police business as individuals.

At the Oktoberfest, they patrolled in small units of officers; their tactics were modified to include teamwork. These police also had training to solve problems quickly and with less information than in normal situations.

Good public relations were important. Working with the media ahead of time increased the visitors’ sense of security. The local press office was available to the Oktoberfest police commander, POR Bayer, at all times.

Officers were specifically trained to deal with intoxicated people while avoiding the use of bodily force. Also, by having a large police presence at the festival, problems were not allowed to escalate. There was good coordination between the police and the private security force.

With careful planning and mutual cooperation between agencies and private security forces, events as large as Munich’s Oktoberfest can be safe and secure.

Jim Weiss is retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER.

Mickey Davis is a Florida-based journalist.

A sufficient number of interpreters were available to deal with verbal communication barriers—also available were leaflets printed in several languages, pictograms, and radio messages for improved communication.

For policing the 2004 Oktoberfest, all selected police officers were specially trained.  This meant a change from their basic police behavior where the officers usually conduct police business as individuals.

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2005

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A sufficient number of interpreters were available to deal with verbal communication barriers—also available were leaflets printed in several languages, pictograms, and radio messages for improved communication.
For policing the 2004 Oktoberfest, all selected police officers were specially trained.  This meant a change from their basic police behavior where the officers usually conduct police business as individuals.
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