EP (LIBE Committee) Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG) - 19 October 2023

EP (LIBE Committee) Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG) – 19 October 2023

Thank you, Madam Chair. Good morning.

My name is Àngels Bosch. I am a superintendent of the Catalan police force, Mossos d’Esquadra and I have been with the police since 1992.

The scope of action of the Police of Catalonia – Mossos d’Esquadra is the whole of the Catalan territory, and it exercises all the functions of a police force as well as public safety and public order, and judicial policing and criminal investigation, including the various forms of organised crime and terrorism. In recent years, as a commander in the city of Barcelona, I have been in charge of public safety management and as a frontline operational commander in public order operations.

I was President of EuroCOP from 2015 to 2020 and now I am a member of the Executive Committee.

The first thing that is important to highlight is that, in all countries, public order and the use of force is an extremely sensitive area of the police function and that  security incidents that need to be managed can have very variable dynamics and are difficult to control, due to multiple factors. The police are the guarantors of citizens’ rights and freedoms and at the same time, they serve to maintain law and order by protecting members of the public and their property, preventing crime, reducing the fear of crime and improving the quality of life for all citizens. So that, the police have the difficult task of ensuring a fair balance between the fundamental rights of assembly, demonstration and protest, and the peaceful use of the public space by citizens.

The rule of law is part of and a prerequisite for the protection of all democratic values. All relevant actors at EU and national level, including governments, parliaments and the judiciary, have to step up efforts to uphold and reinforce the rule of law. The police play an important role in preventing any erosion of the rule of law, which is not an unconditional application of law, but the democratic acceptance of being ruled by law.

The use of force is fully linked to the principles of proportionality, opportunity and consistency when police officers must exercise their function of protecting persons and property. Police officers may use force in order to defend themselves or another and it is justified when it is used with the aim of achieving a legitimate law enforcement objective. Training law enforcement officials, equipping them with adequate protective equipment and an appropriate range of less-lethal weapons are essential to prevent unnecessary or excessive harm. Such appropriate personal protective equipment can help decrease the need for police officers to use the force or weapons. Efforts by mediators on the scene can be a key element of community policing. Anyway, while dialogue policing and mediation is now been adopted and required by most because of its high success, there is no guarantee of success in case there are no recognised valid interlocutors among the demonstrators or they simply refuse to engage in dialogue with the police.

Police often become the scapegoat for political decisions and social situation that is the subject of the protests. We have also experienced this during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which we were assigned the job of ensuring restrictions of rights and freedoms to guarantee security and health care capacity in the different countries. During demonstrations, sometimes, we see that certain individuals behave violently, and police officers have the duty to distinguish between those individuals and other assembly participants, whose individual right to peaceful assembly should be unaffected.

The police frequently act in situations of high tension, especially in situations where the use of force is necessary to preserve higher legal interests. That said, sometimes the police have to intervene. This is not because the individual level of tolerance of the deployed police officers has been reached, but because the police have the role in the community where they belong to deal with the issue of violence in order to protect the community. And it has to be when necessary, proportional and appropriate.

The police, among whom there have also been many casualties, are often operating in difficult conditions, owing in particular to the hostility of some protesters, but also to an excessive workload. It is necessary to condemn every kind of violence against individuals –including violence against police officers– or property by violent, militant protesters, who only come for a violent purpose and harm the legitimacy of peaceful protests.

When using the force, the de-escalation action of the police means getting the level of disorder back to an acceptable level (not always back to under the ‘limit of legality’), but at least under the ‘limit of tolerance’ decided by the authorities. The main goal of police action is de-escalation, even if the first result will be, most of the time, that the level of disorder will temporarily increase, because of the intervention. The appropriateness of the intervention is indicated by the fact that the final situation, after the intervention is made, has a lower level of disorder than before.

It is of major importance guaranteeing the safety of police officers engaged in security maintenance operations during public protest demonstrations. On the other hand, EuroCOP recognises that some incidents led to a loss of confidence in the police. Oversight and accountability in all police forces are ineludibly. I would like to remark that while police officers are representative of government authority, enforcement, and power, they are also human beings. Over years of service, they are asked to not only enforce the law but also face an endless number of pressure-filled situations by assessing risk and confronting trauma.

Today’s constant movement of people around the world has become a massive challenge for police forces, especially as people can play different roles in different contexts, assuming different behaviours. In addition, the terrorist attacks that we have suffered in Europe have highlighted the absolute need to gather and share knowledge about crowd protection and management.

Member States’ law enforcement officials should be able to actively participate in training provided by the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) on ‘Public order and the use of force” and all competent authorities of the Member States – and it includes all police forces with full powers in any territory of the European Union- should be able to exchange best practices in this regard. It would be desirable that CEPOL, as a centre where training is given in accordance with European standards, could standardise the training of the different police academies. This would mean establishing a training plan with common contents and a supervision by CEPOL, which would allow an homologation.

On the other hand, it would be counterproductive to improve the exchange of information, collaboration and cooperation between countries if Member State governments are not able to establish the same commitment between the different competent authorities (police forces) in each of their territories. It is therefore essential that improvements to cross-border cooperation and experience and information exchange take into account the decentralised structure of some Member States.

Similarly, Europol should be allowed to cooperate directly with competent authorities in Member States, including regional police forces. The need to improve police cooperation is particularly relevant for border territories.

Thank you very much for your attention and I remain at your disposal to answer to your questions.