Police called to join coronavirus ‘fine strike’ after brawl fuels discontent
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Police called to join coronavirus ‘fine strike’ after brawl fuels discontent

Police officer monitoring social distancing at Bois de La Cambre - Ter Kamerenbos, in Brussels, Sunday 22 March 2020. © BELGA/ PAUL-HENRI VERLOOY

Police unions are calling on officers to stop handing out fines to protest a perceived lack of support from authorities throughout the pandemic and following clashes at the weekend.

Several unions are urging their members to join in the “fining strike” and no longer hand out fines to offenders of coronavirus measures to demand a response from authorities after police officers clashed with passers-by during an identity check in Ixelles.

Footage of the clash on Saturday posted online shows several police officers engaged in a confused tussle with a group of men in which both parties can be seen shoving and throwing kicks and punches at each other.

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The footage begins in the middle of the confrontation but shows two officers shoving two separate men to the ground and one officer dragging one man by the arm as passers-by intervene by shoving and kicking police, prompting officers to respond in kind.

Three people were arrested after the confrontation but released on Sunday. While prosecutors said the investigation is set to continue, their release prompted a backlash from unions.

The “fining strike” is a “cry from help” from officers, according to Carlo Medo, lead of the NSPV – SNPS police union. “They have had it. For years, staff have felt like the punching bag of everything that goes wrong in society.”

Unions are calling out the government for failing to provide officers with support throughout the crisis, such as childcare solutions and premiums.

“Our people have been working day and night since March. Nobody wants to recognize us as an essential link in the approach to this crisis,” Medo said. “The promised revision of wages on January 1, 2020, has not materialized either.”

The brawl in question took place on Saturday in Ixelles and began when a group of police officers attempted to arrest a man for resisting a coronavirus check carried, prompting bystanders to step it.

A police spokesperson told Bruzz that the agents wanted to arrest the man for resisting but did not specify the reasons for the coronavirus check, which took place at 5:00 PM, well ahead of the late-night curfew.

Officers eventually arrested three people after the scuffle and the spokesperson said that three officers were injured and went to the hospital to get care.

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.

Ministers pledge action as unions cry foul

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.

Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden released a statement on Sunday pledging to further resort to the use of bodycams to collect evidence. She also said that more officers would be equipped with tasers, widely used in the United States and made illegal in Germany over health risk concerns.

Confrontations between residents and police have been a flashpoint throughout the pandemic, as several violent arrests and brawls, as well as a deadly car chase, have inflamed communities around issues of law and order and police violence.

As unions denounced attacks against officers, issued fierce calls for increased protection and demanded zero-tolerance, local communities, NGOs and MEPs raised concerns over racial and ethnic profiling and accused police of being more forgiving with coronavirus offenders in better-off neighbourhoods and of excessive use of force.

Responding to increased pressure and as a stream of footage of violent incidents inflamed both unions and police’s critics, a federal police commissioner brushed away such incidents as “slip-ups.”

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times