A history of violence

Sharing her own recent experience of police harassment, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana says there is an urgent need to address police brutality, accountability and over policing.
Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana

Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana (DE, Greens/EFA) is a Vice-Chair of Parliament’s DEVE Committee & Co-President of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI)

06 Jul 2020

The brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent dissemination of the shocking video documenting his last moments has brought the issue of police brutality into the spotlight, both in the US and in Europe. Then, two weeks ago, this issue was brought into the hemicycle of the European Parliament when I recounted my own recent experience of police violence.

The police targeted me because I dared to take a photo of them harassing two young black men. They crossed the road to address me, confiscated my phone and intimidated me. The thing is, taking photos and filming the police is legal here in Belgium and in many other countries across Europe. However, the police routinely harass, intimidate and fi ne people who dare to film their actions - with many of those affected never getting the chance to have their voices heard.

The issue of police violence is by no means unique to Belgium; it is prevalent across all Member States. Instead of looking outside, we must focus on the reality of the situation here in Europe. A recent report published by Amnesty International highlights the disproportionate impact of the use of unlawful force by police forces, across EU Member States, on ethnic minority communities.

“The police targeted me because I dared to take a photo of them harassing two young black men. They crossed the road to address me, confiscated my phone and intimidated me”

In France, police checks in the working-class neighbourhood of Seine- Saint-Denis, home to a large Black and North African population, were double the national average, while the number of fines issued was three times higher than the rest of the country. In Bulgaria, Romani people are often subject to mandatory confinement and over policing. Unlike the USA, the EU has no official statistics on the number of ethnic minority deaths resulting from interactions with the police.

Furthermore, the latest report from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) shows that for the majority of deaths in police custody, here in Europe, there is no accountability, or consequences for the police officers involved. This must change. Understanding police violence, especially against ethnic minority communities, is not so difficult when you understand the history of policing. Policing was partly developed as a means of control in many European colonies, to manage enslaved people and maintain the interests of the status quo. No wonder then, that policing today carries with it these violent undertones.

This history is part of what must be addressed if we are to effectively tackle institutionalised racism within the police force and other institutions within Europe. Last week, the European Commission held a landmark debate on racism in the EU.

Following the debate, Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli announced that she would lead an Action plan on tackling racism and Afrophobia in the EU - one of the demands made in a letter, initiated by myself and fellow MEP colleagues Alice Kuhnke and Monica Semedo, and signed by 121 MEPs, calling for action on structural racism here in the EU. Acknowledgement of institutionalised racism in Europe and the development of an action plan is a welcome first step. However, the path we have to walk is a long one.

As well as an action plan, we urgently need to address the issue of police brutality in Member States and work to ensure accountability, justice and the prevention of over policing, especially among ethnic minority communities. There are a number of initial steps we can take to achieve that. The collection of data, disaggregated by racial and ethnic origin, should be systematic and obligatory. Member States should be obliged to publish such data, so that it is possible to monitor the extent of racial profiling in police forces. Furthermore, it should be obligatory for Member States to investigate all deaths in police custody and ensure accountability and appropriate sanctions for all officers who use unlawful force.

“The issue of police violence is by no means unique to Belgium; it is prevalent across all Member States. Instead of looking outside, we must focus on the reality of the situation here in Europe”

Also, as called for in the resolution of the European Parliament on the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd, I welcome the call for an independent expert group tasked with the development of an EU code of police ethics. All forms of policing should be taken into account in such a code - not just internal policing, but also the policing of borders. The Commission should also monitor the implementation of any such code, as well as investigations of deaths in custody and take the initiative to launch infringement proceedings should states fail to uphold their obligations as outlined in the treaties.

However, in the long term, we must rethink the role of the police within our societies, as well as the issue of criminalisation. We must reconsider what we classify as crime and examine the ways in which we address harm within our societies. It is clear that retributive justice is not helping us to decrease the harm suffered by victims of crime. Nor does the presence of the police necessarily help to address harm; 14 percent of people who experienced racist abuse reported their incidents to the police; while 13 percent of women who experienced a serious incident of gender-based violence also reported the incident to the police.

We should start to think about how we can foster environments that address the causes of harm and work towards its prevention rather than continue to develop a system that focuses on the criminalisation of specific communities and individuals.

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