Last month, a young person stepped in front of a crowded conference room in Brussels to share his story of ethnic profiling by police in Belgium. In the audience sat police officers and policymakers who listened as he recalled his experience of being stopped by the police.
His crime? Police officers thought he was a burglar in his own home because he is black. The police officer did not believe him until a neighbor attested that he was living in the apartment. Unjust targeting based on race or ethnic background harms minority communities and erodes trust in the police (and the state). It also undermines police effectiveness and makes us all less safe.
The Open Society Justice Initiative had the honor to participate in the conference on racial profiling—the first of its kind in Belgium—which was organized by local civil society groups. The event brought together police, policymakers, civil society organizations, and affected communities to begin to repair the damaged relations between police and communities, which is a problem decades in the making.
Many activists point to one event over 27 years ago that first laid bare the problematic relationship between communities and police. On the evening of May 10, 1991, an argument between police and a 17-year-old Moroccan about a “routine” identity check sparked a three-day protest in Forest, a largely Moroccan and immigrant neighborhood in Brussels.
The protest scenes may have stunned some Belgians, but it was nothing new to the Forest community. They had silently experienced the trauma of ethnic profiling and police brutality for years.
In the early 2000s, grassroots activists in Antwerp organized civilian patrols to document police brutality and racist behavior against minority youth, who reported harassment by police in the streets. When youth were taken in for questioning, police officers often physically abused them, and sometimes even hit them with phonebooks.
Ever since the Forest protests, the police oversight body, Comité P, has investigated racism and discrimination in both internal and external police operations and expressed serious concerns in different reports (as recently as 2015). Yet while collecting data is often the important first step to determine whether the problem of racial profiling exists in a police unit, the next step—getting rid of it—is just as critical. Aside from calls for increased diversity within the police, there has been no policy response to the police targeting of minority communities.
Today, the relationship between police and minority communities has only deteriorated with the introduction of counterterrorism policies that criminalize and target many of the same ethnic minorities—now, also for being Muslim—and the areas where they live.
Some high-profile victims have testified in Belgian media and public debates about the trauma, humiliation, and feeling of being unsafe in their own neighborhood after guns were put to their heads on their way home or out to lunch. In many cases, police or soldiers told them they “looked suspicious.” At the same time, ordinary police checks of minority youth and police actions in the areas where ethnic minorities live continue to lead to violent clashes.
In a new report [link in French], Amnesty International Flanders and partners interviewed over 48 police officers and officials about discriminatory practices during policing and identity checks. The report showed that half of the officers interviewed believe ethnic profiling is happening, and they often lack the tools to avoid and end it.
Back at the conference, officers confirmed that they are willing to work with communities to find solutions and advance policy recommendations to tackle ethnic profiling across Belgium. Various high-ranking police officers and officials took the testimonies to heart and said they were motivated to put recommendations into practice.
Experts presented best practices on policing, such as police-stop registration, as a way to collect stronger data on ethnic profiling. They also discussed the importance of police leadership and political support to bring about change.
Civil society actors also discussed the limited and faulty complaint mechanisms and recourse possibilities for victims, and their importance for the belief of citizens, and especially youth, in the rule of law and principles of equality and fair treatment.
The question remains whether, within an adversarial political atmosphere, police and communities in Belgium will be able to restore deeply tarnished relations—in order to restore the peace in their neighborhoods, and to ensure safety for all.