The number of complaints against police zones in the Brussels region increased in 2021, while there has been a rise in the number of complaints and judicial reports alleging racism and/or discrimination across Belgium.
In Belgium, people who believe they have been treated wrongly by a local police zone in the country can lodge a complaint with the external monitoring body for the police named Committee P. According to its latest figures, the number of complaints against zones in Brussels increased again in 2021.
"The larger number of complaints in the Brussels region can be explained by the large number of events that regularly take place there," the Standing Committee on the Supervision of the Police Services stated in a report published on Wednesday.
Overall, 2,793 complaint files were opened by the committee against police zones in Belgium, a decrease of 10.25% compared to 2020. "However, a record number of complaints was recorded during this year, partly as a result of the Covid-19 measures, the lockdown and the many demonstrations against the pandemic policies."
In 2021, the number of complaint files once again fell in line with the numbers recorded before the pandemic. However, the body found that for the second year in a row, complaints revolved around police violence, racism and discrimination, refusal to answer a complaint and infringements of individual freedoms during the management of demonstrations.
Racism and other discrimination
The Belgian police has come under harsh criticism in recent years after incidents that could be explained by persistent systemic racism in its ranks continue to be largely unaddressed. In 2021 there were 57 complaints including racist, xenophobic or discriminatory behaviour, which is up from 35 in 2020.
Police in Belgium's history of racial profiling and other forms of discrimination even resulted in the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressing concern over the fact that the alleged racist violence is a persistent problem.
The continued existence of this phenomenon is in spite of promises by police to improve their racial biases after hundreds of recommendations were presented to Committee P by the UN body.
In January 2021, the death of a black man in police custody caused widespread unrest from citizens protesting police discrimination after a number of fatal incidents between law enforcement and black and brown communities. Ten days later, another incident occurred with a man of North African origin dying in police custody under suspicious circumstances.
In the first year of the pandemic, 17-year-old Adil was run over by a police car while trying to evade a stop and search, killing him on the spot. The death coincided with the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Violence during demonstrations
Complaints against the Brussels-Capital/Ixelles police zone, which was regularly involved in controlling and breaking up demonstrations that had turned violent, increased from 170 in 2019 to 229 in 2020 to further rise to 280 last year. Complaints against the police zone in Brussels North increased from 68 in 2020 to 77.
"In 2021 Committee P received almost one hundred complaints in the context of demonstrations in Brussels against the measures taken in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic," the report added.
At the end of last year and the start of this year, clashes between the police and a small group of protesters regularly broke out on the fringes of the demonstrations themselves.
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In one case in November, the organisers of one demonstration lodged a complaint against the police for their actions during and after the protest, arguing that the police themselves were the instigators of the riots.
Cases against the police zones in the west and south of the capital, which were less involved in the protests, decreased by 26 and 13, respectively.
"The vast majority of complaints concern shortcomings in the performance of duties and the use of powers (91%) or shortcomings in the attitude of police officers (80.2%)."
Meanwhile, after increasing in 2020, all forms of violence against citizens (verbal abuse, aggressive attitudes and physical violence) decreased in 2021 (-16.3%).