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Police officers report systemic bullying and harassment in Brussels North zone
An investigation by Belgian broadcaster RTBF has uncovered numerous stories of alleged bullying and harassment within the Brussels North police force in the months following the tragic suicide of a senior officer.
Reporters were approached by dozens of anonymous witnesses who have complained about the toxic working environment which, it is claimed, led to Chief Inspector Vincent Marcelis killing himself at his home in early August.
A few days before taking his own life, Marcelis reportedly told his colleagues: “Everything has been taken from me”. He may or may not have had problems in his personal life but for those who worked with him on a daily basis, there was no doubt about what had pushed him to his limits. It was the harassment Marcelis had been the target of for several years that had prompted the officer to end his life.
Since that tragedy, tongues have loosened within the police force. Traditionally suspicious of the media, many police officers and members of the logistics and administrative framework (the "Calog") have spoken out - anonymously - about the working atmosphere.
More than 40 officers and support staff, a considerable number for an investigation of this type, have come forward to RTBF journalists with stories of bullying, harassment and the excessive use of the infamous "Article 44" which, in principle, allows officers to be transferred in the interest of the service. In reality, in many cases, it is claimed that it has been used to punish those who don’t toe the line.
“With the new management, it's contempt, harassment,” said one officer. “We're like a feudal system. You must be submissive, and never give your opinion, never. Otherwise, well, your card is marked and then, well, you're eliminated.”
“First it is a transfer via an Article 44,” the officer added. “You are transferred to traffic duties at Place Meiser. We’ve also had many commissioners who were fired like in a court martial. They came to empty their desks during the night. Or the chief of staff came in one day and said, 'I don't want to see you anymore, you're out.' Given the climate of terror here, it is no surprise that there are a very large number of people on sick leave or out due to work-related accidents. There are burnouts, suicide attempts... You can't imagine the gravity of the situation.”
Regarding Inspector Marcelis's suicide, the officer continued: “We had a colleague who committed suicide a few weeks ago. He was humiliated, forcibly transferred to services where everything was set up to go wrong. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive that. The destruction, the discredit he suffered at work, it got the better of him. And I don't think it's going to be the last.”
Indeed, one officer who confided in colleagues after Marcelis’s suicide admitted that the authoritarian management had driven him to also consider taking his own life. He maintained that there were no problems at home and that it was the working conditions at Brussels North that had dragged him so low. He was one of the lucky ones – a psychologist brought him back from the brink.
Another police officer reveals who are the main targets of harassment: the "old" (over 50 years old) and those who return from sick leave and find themselves without an office or assignment on their return to work. In the best case, the head of the department submits three proposals: two frankly unpalatable and a third, barely any better, which the officer is forced to accept.
Police spokeswoman Audrey Dereymaeker denies any misuse or punishment through the use of Article 44. There have only been 35 such transfers in five years since the arrival of the new area chief, she explains. “Everything is done in accordance with the staff and in consultation with the unions,” she said. “In two out of three cases, the transfer is done with the officer’s consent. Thus, in one third of cases, the police officer is moved in the interest of the service without having signed his consent. But he has the opportunity to appeal to the Council of State.”
If there were so many abuses of Article 44, the unions would not let it go unchallenged, the spokeswoman added. This argument is not accepted by the majority of those officers coming forward. “Some union delegates are kept on a leash by the management,” one said, adding that bringing an appeal to the Council of State is expensive, takes a long time and the result may still not go in your favour.
Dereymaeker also insisted that many changes have occurred since Frédéric Dauphin took over as head of the Brussels North police zone. “I think some people who have complained have been in some way affected by these changes,” she said. “The police force is a fairly change-resistant organisation, so change doesn't always appeal. What we have always wanted, in the management of Brussels North, is to work together, to have a dialogue with our partners, to be transparent.”
“When the chief of staff arrived here, there were situations that had no written record,” said Dereymaeker. “We didn't know why such a person had been moved, why they had changed service, and so it was complicated. Did the colleague ask to change to another service as part of his career development? There was no written record of any of that.”
Cécile Jodogne, mayor of Schaerbeek and president of the municipality’s police college, who was contacted by RTBF for comment, said in a statement that she supports the use of Article 44 in a transparent way as a means to move officers “in the majority of cases at their request but sometimes also as a matter of order for reasons of organisation of services.”
"I can understand that there are those who are discontent, that there are those who are dissatisfied,” the mayor’s statement continued. “I can't deny that. But are there misuses of Article 44? From what I know of the files, and we are really well informed, I would say no.”
Brussels North police are currently under investigation by Committee P, the body responsible for the control of police services, and social inspection, whose mission is to ensure respect for well-being at work.