On 20 June the Minister of the Interior and Security, Pieter De Crem, declared: “there no structural racism problem within the Police.” He supported his statement by saying that “very few racism-related complaints are lodged with the P. Committee: 45 complaints between April and December 2017, while there are a total of 50,000 officers within the Police forces. Plus, most of the complaints are considered unfounded.” Police Watch, the Belgian Human Rights League’s observatory on police abuse, recently launched a campaign to collect testimonies and share experiences of police violence during the Covid-19 lockdown. With the help of LDH’s partners, more than 100 testimonies have been collected in two months. These have been analyzed and presented in a report that was published last week. Without claiming to have a statistical representativeness, the testimonies presented in this report contradict the Minister's statement.
More than 100 testimonies allow some general conclusions to be reached
Police Watch was only established a month ago and was relying on tools that were designed for this kind of situation: a website dedicated to informing victims of their rights and collecting testimonies via secure online forms.
About 100 testimonies of incidents that occurred between 18 March and 29 May 2020 were collected. After review, 54 testimonies were validated. Ten testimonies were received during the LDH help sessions and 11 anonymous testimonies were sent by association partners in compliance with the ethical rules of the sector. UNIA, a Belgian institution which fights discrimination and equal opportunities, sent an overview of 27 cases reporting police brutality (every case was analyzed separately).
We do not claim that the report is statistically representative (such statistical work should be performed by the Belgian state, like other European countries do). However, this gathering of 102 testimonies helps us draw up a series of findings which are similar to the conclusions drawn by associations fighting police abuse (such as Blédartes, JOC, Bruxelles Panthères, collectif des Madres, etc.) and organizations and institutions concerned (aide à la jeunesse, Médecins du Monde, etc.).
The testimonies show that vulnerable groups have been disproportionately affected by police abuse
While the measures implemented by the state reflect uniform management of the health crisis, which nonetheless increases the pressure on groups that were already vulnerable before the outbreak, the enforcement of such measures by Police forces seems to be arbitrary.
- 98% of reported police abuses happened in the three poorest regions of the country. In Brussels, 71% of the reported cases happened in the most disadvantaged areas.
- 53% of the respondents declared they were subject to a discriminatory treatment.
- Four factors increase the likelihood of being victim of police abuse : being young (55%), belonging to an ethnic minority group (non-white) (40%), acting for solidarity or expressing views in favor of these groups (17%), and being in a precarious situation (15%).
The analysis highlights how authorities have used double standards in managing the crisis, in the processing producing second-class citizens. The state, and society as a whole, has taken advantage of the groups listed above as they often perform precarious and low-paid jobs with no protection, but they cannot exercise their rights effectively.
Police putting people at risk of infection while trying to enforce lockdown rules
The testimonies report that some Police officers did not respect health safety measures, performing stops without masks and gloves, and often placing several people in a single cell, which makes it impossible to ensure physical distancing measures. The contradiction between the stated goal of making people comply with the health measures but then putting people they stop at risk of being infected, raises the question of whether the actions of the Police have been necessary and proportionate.
The testimonies that have been collected highlight the fact that it is common for a lot of officers to be deployed for situations in which the concerned individuals show little resistance, if any.
Therefore, one might legitimately question these actions and the intents they are based on, whether these intents are conscious or unconscious. Are these measures meant to protect citizens or to show strength and power?
Belgium should be doing more to stop police abuse
In their recommendations made to Belgium, the Council of Europe's Committee for the prevention of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (CPT), the UN Committee against torture (CAT) and the UN Human Rights Council have declared that the “State must take the necessary measures in order to fight efficiently against ill treatment, including treatment based on discrimination of any kind, and hold accountable those who perpetrated such acts”. Belgium has been accused of police abuse on many occasions and was already condemned by the European court of Human rights.
To put these recommendations into practice, Belgium should:
- Recognize the existence of police abuse and implement a monitoring mechanism to produce official statistics.
- Ensure justification and transparency by recording stops and ensuring the identification of on-duty police officers, in accordance with the law.
- Guarantee the right to film police actions.
- Improve relationships between police and communities.
- Develop accessible, independent and effective complaint mechanisms and provide for supporting measures for those concerned.