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Police feeling the pressure as pandemic tensions rise
Patience among police officers is beginning to wear thin after another weekend of violence related to the restrictions brought in during the coronavirus pandemic. Three officers were injured following an incident on Saturday evening in Ixelles when they clashed with passers-by during an identity check.
The confrontation in Ixelles is just the latest in a long line of flashpoints that have taken place between residents and police during the pandemic, which have included violent arrests, fights, riots and a car chase that claimed the life of a Brussels teenager. While these and other incidents have caused anger in communities who accuse the police of excessive force, the continued aggression on the streets, in addition to other factors, is causing discontent within the police force itself.
Several police unions have called for their members to stop handing out fines to offenders of coronavirus measures and join in a “fining strike” to send a message to the authorities that they have had enough of a perceived lack of support during the pandemic. Union representatives revealed they will meet government officials on Wednesday to discuss the proposed action.
Carlo Medo, head of the SNPS police union, said over the weekend that the proposed strike is a ‘cry for help’ from officers who are suffering from a lack of support. “They have had it,” he said. “For years, staff have felt like the punching bag of everything that goes wrong in society.”
As well as facing aggressive opposition on the streets, the unions claim the government is also failing officers in other ways during the pandemic. They accuse the government of failing to provide officers with support, such as childcare solutions and bonuses, throughout the crisis.
“Our people have been working day and night since March. Nobody wants to recognise us as an essential link in the approach to this crisis,” Medo said. “The promised revision of wages on 1 January 2020 has not materialized either.”
In a bid to placate the police and protect them better on the streets, interior minister Annelies Verlinden pledged on Sunday to increase the use of bodycams and even equip more officers with tasers. "(Officers) can be equipped with body cameras and tasers to ensure they can respond better to the assault they are facing," she said. Some police forces around the capital consider the use of tasers in enforcing Covid measures as disproportionate. Annelies Verlinden addressed these concerns by adding: “It's not possible to use tasers all the time, but we'll fix it,” she said. “We will also find solutions and agreements with the police.”
The minister also called for stricter prosecution of offenders and better clarification of offences and punishments related to the coronavirus measures. An investigation into the incident in Ixelles is being conducted as a priority after the three people arrested were later released. This has angered some police officers.
Prosecutors on Sunday said they had released the three men citing inconsistencies between the account of facts they gave and that given by the police officers.
"That doesn't mean they're going to go unpunished,” a spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor's office said on Sunday. “We will have to wait until the outcome of the investigation to determine the involvement of these individuals in possible offending facts."
Responding to the incident, justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne issued a memo announcing that he would no longer allow prosecutors to resort to technical dismissals, a measure which allows for a case to be dismissed if there is not sufficient evidence to trigger a prosecution.