Zug, 11.04.2024

Stopped by the police in the cemetery at midnight

The 2023 annual report of the Ombudsman's Officeof the Canton of Zug deals with various cases. These provide an insight into the work of the ombudsman's office, but also raise questions, such as how to behave during a police check.

The Ombudsman's Office (Ombudsstelle) of the Canton of Zug, an extrajudicial complaints and arbitration centre, has recently published its 2023 annual report, which discusses case statistics and procedures, as well as some cases in more detail. One complaint, about a police check that took place at a cemetery in the middle of the night, is particularly interesting.

A man, let's call him Hans Meier, was stopped by two police officers after a midnight visit to the cemetery. He received no answer when he asked why they had stopped him, and other aspects that seemed questionable to him were also explained in brief and unfriendly terms, according to his own statement. Hans Meier was particularly concerned about one question: "Do you always have to carry an ID card in Switzerland?"

He only contacted the ombudsman's office in order to find the answer to this question, and only agreed to mediation after a discussion, as he feared negative personal consequences from the police, having felt insecure towards police officers following his experience.

According to the annual report of the Zug Ombudsman's Office, a citizen came to them with the question: "Is there an ID requirement in Switzerland?" following a police check               Archive photo: Stefan Kaiser

Is identification compulsory in Switzerland?
Ombudswoman Bernadette Zürcher clarifies: "There is no obligation to carry an ID card in Switzerland. However, according to Article 215 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 
(Strafprozessordnung), the police can take people without ID to the police station for clarification." The ombudswoman goes on to explain that such a procedure always requires a concrete reason on the part of the police, which could be a suspicion of a criminal offence.

In this case, the police officers stated that they were concerned about Meier's well-being and that the situation seemed unusual in their eyes. There was therefore no suspicion of a criminal offence, and the reason for the check was to protect a private individual from himself.

Although the question of compulsory identification could be answered, the man's resentment regarding the actions of the police remained. The assessment of such a case with contradictory descriptions of the circumstances and mediating between the parties is one of the challenges and tasks of the ombudsman's office.

According to Bernadette Zürcher, negative emotions can quickly arise in the case of police checks: "The uniform alone creates an imbalance of power. The police usually carry out checks in pairs, which can quickly lead to a feeling of helplessness." She recommends making police officers more aware of this, and that the persons being checked should cooperate in order to avoid the checks escalating into conflicts.

Information and communication are key
According to the ombudsman's office, the main problem in most cases is the lack of knowledge among those seeking advice about the processes of public authorities. The experts at the ombudsman's office not only have the task of mediating, but also of providing information. An open dialogue is crucial, especially for people who have already had negative experiences with the system. The ombudswoman repeatedly notes that "communication breakdowns are the cause of conflicts, whether due to misunderstandings or a lack of expertise."

At cantonal level, the ombudsman's office receives complaints about the various bodies of the Security Directorate, such as the police or the Office for Migration, as well as about the Directorate of Home Affairs (Direktion des Innern), such as the Child and Adult Protection Authority (Kesb). There are more complaints about social welfare and the school sector at the municipal level.

The report also takes a closer look at some other cases, concerning income management, migration, the residents' registration office (Einwohnerkontrolle) and fixed-term employment contracts. According to the ombudsman's office, all the examples highlighted above can be primarily attributed to insufficient knowledge or a lack of communication on the part of one party.

The ombudsman's office believes that many conflicts can be prevented through transparent and emphatic communication. But if this is not ensured, and there is a lack of clarity, the ombudsman's office can be a point of contact for everyone.