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Doubts raised over legality of new Antwerp biker-cop unit

The new emergency response teams are dressed in anonymous clothing, and carrying heavy weaponry on an unmarked motorcycle. Credit: Belga

Federal home affairs minister Pieter De Crem has instructed the Inspector General of the federal police to investigate the legality of a new emergency response team (ERT) of the Antwerp police, unveiled this week.

The team consists of crews of two officers on a single motorcycle, both armed with B&T, 300 weapons and dressed in black and grey uniforms with full-face motorcycle helmets (see photo). The aim is to deploy the ERT-M teams to situations requiring a more rapid response than would be possible using the existing rapid response teams, who travel by van.

At the launch, Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever explained, “The attack last year on the Christmas market in Strasbourg showed us that response teams have to be as dynamic as possible,” he said. “A motorcycle can get to the scene faster than a normal rapid response team, in a medieval city like ours and with the traffic congestion we often have.”

But De Crem has questions about the set-up of the teams, and how far they are in line with both legislation and internal police regulations regarding training, clothing, welfare and safety. He has asked the Inspector General of police to look into the matter.

Antwerp police said they had not been officially informed of the investigation, but had no worries. “We’re not concerned,” said spokesperson Wouter Bruyns. “Everything is legally in order.” The training conforms to police academy standards, he said. “And the team is fully compliant with the circular on special support units.”

A statement disputed by Joery Dehaes, general secretary of the ACV police union. Posting on his personal account on Facebook, Dehaes pointed to the uniform, which had neither been agreed nor even discussed with unions. “How is a member of the public supposed to know these are police officers?”

In a later phone interview with De Standaard, Dehaes explained. “We absolutely agree that police have to well equipped,” he said. “But it has to be legal. This uniform is not, and that could lead to confusion among members of the public.”

He also raised concern about the weapons carried by the ERT-M teams, which are described by their manufacturer as “the perfect precision tool for all kinds of sniper assignments,” and thus perhaps not best-suited to close-quarters urban situations.

Is that sort of situation part of the duties of the local police, or is it rather work for the special units of the federal police?” he asked. “But those units have been shown the door in Antwerp.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times