The young man, awakened by the sounds of the doorbell and loud knocking, comes to the door barefoot and wearing a bathrobe. "Can we come in?" asks Senior Detective Christine O., showing her police I.D. "My place is a mess," says the sleepy-looking 23-year-old, reluctantly making way for the visitors. "Doesn't bother us at all," says Senior Detective Kai K., the second plainclothes officer, as he steps into the apartment. He glances into the tiny kitchen, where dirty dishes are stacked in the sink.

The conversation, which takes place around noon, lasts only a few minutes.

"You do know that a lot of cars are being set on fire," says Christine O. "So what?" "This isn't just property damage; it's also considered a crime." "So?" "We're talking about a prison term, not probation."

The young man looks nervously from one officer to the other. "And why are you telling me this?" he asks, looking bewildered. Christine O. pulls out a report.

"Weren't you stopped by the police the other night?" "Yeah. I had to show them my I.D. That was it." "Why were you out so late?" "I'm a cook. I often work until midnight." "Where?" the inspector asks. "At a restaurant in Poppenbüttel."

As they walk back to their car, the officers agree that the young man is harmless. "He's not setting fires," says Kai K. "Who's next?" Someone in a completely different league, says Christine O., reading from a document in her hand. "He set basements on fire three times, was involved in drug deals and has prior convictions for assault and graffiti vandalism."

Visits and conversations

Christine O. and Kai K. are officers on a special mission. As part of the police force's youth protection division, they see themselves as both inspectors and social workers. Their goal is to prevent adolescents and young people, through visits and conversations, from committing serious crimes.

Christine O., 44, who used to work as a street cop in Hamburg's St. Georg red-light district, and 50-year-old Kai K., a former police trainer for the United Nations, are among the Hamburg police department's last hopes for coming to grips with a sinister phenomenon: the series of arson attacks on parked cars. Since 2004, more than 1,400 vehicles have gone up in flames within the city limits.

In the current year alone, police had counted more than 330 torched cars by mid-August. Read full article in Spiegel Online International...