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Officer who gave Nazi salute during fatal police intervention speaks out
The police officer who was filmed making a Nazi salute during an arrest which culminated in the death of a suspect has spoken publicly for the first time about the incident.
In February 2018, police officers at Charleloi Airport arrested Jozef Chovanec, 39, a Slovakian national. After acting violently and erratically in a police cell at the airport, Chovanec was heavily subdued by a group of police officers who held him down and sat on him. Later that night, he was rushed to hospital where he later died.
Images from the police cell were leaked earlier this summer, sparking widespread public outrage. One officer is seen sitting on Chovanec's chest for several minutes. During the intervention in the cell, officers can be seen dancing and laughing. A policewoman, who has now decided to tell her side of the story, then delivered a Nazi salute while her colleagues restrained the Slovakian man.
“The images of that dramatic evening are burned on my retina,” the officer told reporters from De Standaard newspaper at her lawyer’s office in Liège. “I always knew that the surveillance footage could be made public, but it was a shock when this summer it actually happened while the inquest was still under way. Suddenly, everyone judges me, without me being able to defend myself. After a few days I stopped reading the articles. It seemed to be about someone else.”
Her lawyer Alexandre Wilmotte has condemned the leak, referring to it as “a manipulation of the case”.
The 25-year-old policewoman who made the salute during the controversial arrest on 24 February 2018 wishes to remain anonymous. She fears more negative reactions. At the same time, she is determined to tell her version of events.
“It was an exceptionally difficult intervention,” says the officer. “Mr Chovanec was extremely strong and seemed to change his personality. One minute he was shouting and ranting, the next he started laughing and singing, a minute later he was insulting us again. It was very stressful. There was blood and faeces everywhere. Now I realise we were dealing with a man who went through Excited Delirium Syndrome, but I didn't know that at the time. We'd never seen a situation like this in Charleroi before.”
The surveillance footage shows the Slovakian man banging his head against the wall and the cell door that night, up to 40 times. After a police officer raised the alarm at the main desk, five colleagues entered the cell. “We had to protect that man from himself. He was in danger,” says the officer. She herself did not go into the cell until later when asked to assist. “My male colleagues went first because they are stronger.”
The officer confirms that there was laughter in the police cell, but, according to her recollection, that was a reaction to the behaviour of Jozef Chovanec. “It was very hard to control him,” she explained. “As a police officer, you have to deal with violent situations. Humour is a way of processing, to channel your emotions. That's what every colleague will agree with.”
While her colleagues restrained Chovanec, the surveillance footage shows the officer, then 23 years old, delivering the Nazi salute: she stretches her right arm and imitates a moustache under her nose with her left hand. When asked about what she feels prompted the gesture, the officer says: “The man spoke German, sometimes very loudly. A colleague in the hallway asked what he was saying. I wanted to answer with a joke. Within seconds I realised that I had made a mistake, although I had no intention of making that gesture. ‘Don't forget there's a camera there,’ a colleague shouted. But camera or not, I should never have done that. It was wrong and I apologised immediately.”
“When I stretched my arm, I didn't mean anything by that." She insists she's never made the Nazi salute before.
Moments later, a medical team arrived and Chovanec received an injection in the buttock, after which he went into cardiac arrest. “That was a shock for us, too.”
“We dealt with the intervention administratively, filled out the paperwork, and then not much more was said. When I got home, I told my family everything. About the difficult intervention, the dramatic ending, but also about the Nazi salute. It was a kind of trauma I had to deal with. Two days later I went back to work, but I started talking regularly to the stress team about what happened that night.”
She stresses that immediately after the fact, she contacted her superior officer to apologise for the Nazi salute and explain the context. “I was embarrassed, and I also wanted my superiors to know that there were no anti-Semitic intentions behind this,” the officer says. “We had a debriefing. After that, I was questioned by Committee P (the Permanent Oversight Committee for Police Services) about the facts. I've also stated the same thing to them.”
Her colleagues were also interrogated by Committee P. None of them were sanctioned or suspected of involvement in Chovanec's death. After the leaking of the images this summer, the officer was transferred to an internal service in Brussels where she has been in an administrative role ever since.
Does she want to keep working for the police? “Absolutely,” she says. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of a job with the police. It is not on the agenda at the moment, but if it is possible, I would also like to return to Charleroi. I worked in a fantastic team and because of what we've been through, we're even closer than we used to be. It's been very hard but giving up is not in my nature.”