Catherine De Bolle has earned the right to call herself Ghent University Alumnus of the Year 2023. As the chief of Europol, she sees an important role for universities in the modernisation of the police service.
Mrs De Bolle, your new title of Ghent University Alumnus of the Year: how does that feel?
Catherine De Bolle: “I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard the news. It’s always nice to be recognised, and when it comes from your own university it means even more. I’m really proud of Ghent University and its international role. My connection is still strong, also because I’m often in contact with academics. Formerly with Brice De Ruyver, with whom I had a great bond. These days, Gert Vermeulen and Marc Cools remain important advisors. I, therefore, enjoy returning to Ghent University, because I know I can count on them.”
So you have a personal connection, but what role can a university like Ghent University fulfil for an organisation like Europol?
“The role of universities is really important. We need researchers and academics to look critically at our security services. We do self-assessment and have a critical perspective, however, if you stick by an internal assessment, you suffer from tunnel vision. Universities can help us to stay in touch with social changes. Thanks to their research they can offer new ideas, whereas we often lack the time to stand still and consider certain matters.”
Can you give us a specific example?
“We work closely with Ghent University on data protection. That’s an important topic for us, because times are changing. If we conduct a raid somewhere today, we find all kinds of computers, laptops, and smartphones. How can we use all of this data? And are we actually permitted to use such data in our investigations? How should it be stored? This debate is currently a hot topic, however, we’re unable to solve it alone. Advice from external experts and specialists is essential.”
This discussion about data follows on from the growing digitisation. How do police services keep up with this evolution?
“Cybercrime is our greatest challenge. And that goes much further than ransomware or hacking. The cyber aspect has now infiltrated all other kinds of crime. The problem of drugs, child pornography, human trafficking,... they all have a digital aspect these days. Criminal organisations now have their own digital support units, including specialists. With our security forces, we’re now targeting the detection of such profiles. If we get rid of them, we weaken the criminal organisation, as it’s not easy to fill such positions.”
Does that also apply to the positions in the security forces?
“Yes, it’s a big challenge to find the right people these days. The police will always need people who are physically present in streets and neighbourhoods. But there’s also a great need for hi-tech profiles, who work more behind the scenes. Once again, my attention turns to universities. They train the specialists we need to keep our force up to date. We no longer get there simply by training internal people. We now recruit more university students than before. They have a critical training and that is essential to do better. Another problem: private companies are also targeting those profiles and sometimes pay triple the salary. We simply cannot compete.”
And all this at a time when the attractiveness of the sector is suffering due to increasing violence against the police.
“It’s a very grave development. Especially since our reports reveal that a human life today means little to criminal gangs. We are seeing increasing cases of extreme violence. Torture chambers at traffickers, for example. Such violence was unprecedented in Europe and was normally only seen in the drug cartels in Latin America. But now, there is no fear. In the past, criminals held back from violence, because of the fact it attracts attention. Now, they no longer shy away from anything, not even the police. And that means there are also victims who have nothing at all to do with it.”
What can we do against this spiral of violence?
“We need to cooperate better. What I’m most proud of is the fact that we’re transferring and exchanging much more information in Europe. This situation is very different from the one in 2016, the year of the attacks. The member states realise that we can offer operational support and that we also have a role as a centre of expertise. For example, we founded the Innovation Lab that, among other things, works on the latest trends in criminal gangs and shares information about them with the police services.”
Meanwhile, the image of the police and justice is deteriorating among the public. An evolution that surely makes you unhappy?
“We must restore and maintain the public’s trust. We play an important social role, people must be confident that the police and justice are there to enforce the law and maintain democracy. That action is being taken to fight crime and that punishment follows. You need to prove yourself on a daily basis. Yet society has become more polarised and that doesn’t make matters easier.”
How can you tackle this?
“For me, the situation before and after the attacks in 2016 is very different. These days, agents on the street can look like Robocop. We have grown accustomed to this image, but is it normal? In the past, you could just walk into a police station. Now, in most places, you have to ring first, because the office is closed. I think it’s very sad to see.
When it comes to justice, I think our society should think much harder about how to deal with people who commit a crime.”
Can you tell us more?
“I’m strongly in favour of alternative punishment. There are examples of prison systems in European countries where they work with strong one-to-one guidance on reintegration, and the results are promising. The process is very expensive, but locking people up for a long time in poor conditions is not a good thing. Get academics involved in that debate. Philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, lawyers, ... they can all contribute in considering this matter.”
It is clear that you attach great importance to the input from academics.
“Because they so often provide really valuable input, and not only in terms of police and justice. Universities must adopt a leading role in the public debate. Currently, this is too often down to a small number of celebrity experts or politicians. While academics often have a broader perspective of such matters.”
Last of all: the jury that crowned you Ghent University Alumnus of the Year also considered the fact that you are breaking through the glass ceiling in your position. How do you see that?
“To be honest, I never considered it much before. Recently, I’ve realised that it’s not so easy. There’s a positive evolution, we see more women joining the police services. Yet, we notice that the numbers decrease the moment you let up on the issue. I don’t really have an opinion on working with a quota. We don’t have one at Europol, we work with target figures instead. I do believe that action plans are necessary. We need to encourage women to apply for certain positions.”
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