SPAIN: Visible Police ID – Civic Win for CSOs in Catalunya

– Submission to the 2021 Civic Pride awards by Irídia and Amnesty International (AI) Catalunya, July 2021.

“Visible Police ID” is an initiative promoted by Irídia and AI Catalonia, with the aim of raising the standards of transparency and accountability of the Mossos d’Esquadra (the police force in Catalunya), in its public order operations. The initiative is to prevent cases of excessive use of force and as a fundamental guarantee for the exercise of human rights.

The impossibility of identifying the officers who have allegedly committed a disproportionate use of force is one of the main causes of impunity. Many complaints against police officers are shelved because it is not possible to identify who is responsible.

To address this situation, Irídia and AI decided to start a coordinated effort that collected the demands of social movements. Through political advocacy, they sought to consolidate fluid communication channels with the police and authorities, in order to promote changes in the mechanisms of transparency and accountability by introducing the police number in different parts of their uniform.

As part of the advocacy campaign (promoted through letters, meetings and internal communications), a collective action was launched on social networks to spread the message. The action on social networks facilitated two-way communication: citizens could denounce alleged police malpractice and, after analyzing the images, these were replicated by the organizations. This served to educate about international standards regarding the use of force and promote the creation of more efficient monitoring mechanisms.

For two years (2017-2019) an ongoing process of sensibilisation with institutions and parliamentary groups was consolidated. After the approval of a new police identification measure in 2019 for the Anti-Riot Mobile Brigade, the campaign has entered into a new phase of implementation and monitoring.

The most important challenge was to make the institutions understand the priority of implementing visible police ID at a time with numerous protests and mobilisations. In addition, at the beginning, the initiative faced the opposition of the Police Trade Unions, which perceived the initiative as discrediting their work.

In 2019, with numerous instances of the excessive use of force by police, the organisations took advantage of the moment to consolidate the previous awareness-raising work and, through advocacy, promote the police ID initiative. This achievement was also possible, thanks to a context of strong mobilizations in the streets, where civil society was demanding greater mechanisms of police control.

Through this initiative, in October 2020, Catalan police officers in charge of public order functions started to be identified by a Police Operational Number on the back, chest and helmet, with a shorter and more visible typeface, meaning that the identity of any officer could be recognized at a 360 degree angle. In the event of a malpractice complaint, the corresponding legal actions can now be taken to guarantee and protect the rights of the complainants.

The approval of the number ID had clear effects in the fight against impunity. Since its implementation in October 2020, it has been possible to identify the two officers who fired a foam bullet, seconds before a 19-year-old girl was wounded in the eye on February 16 2021, in Barcelona.

The achievement highlights the need to promote comparable standards at the European level on the correct identification of police officers in public order and mass management functions. Similarly, it highlights the need for directives on the rights of detained people. It is essential that, from a logic of transparency and accountability, European countries promote clear guidelines on police ID when they carry out operations that involve the use of law enforcement.

This story also shows the importance of networking amongst human rights organisations and civil society, and their capacity to influence political contexts and push legislative changes. The demand for a clear police officer identification is far-reaching. In Catalonia in 2013, a first step was already achieved with the incorporation of a Police Operational Number (NOP) on the back of the police uniform. However, in 2017, the police response to the outbreak of new protests for the right to self-determination showed that this mechanism was still insufficient.

Even today, the new identification measure (in back, chest and helmet) is expected to be extended and implemented to the units of the Regional Areas of Operational Resources (ARRO) of the Mossos d’Esquadra, as well as to other policie forces of the Spanish State.

According to international human rights standards, police must act based on the principles of necessity, congruence and proportionality. Consequently, when there is an improper police action or that violates these principles, the police and judicial authorities have to act so that the responsible officers, if their responsibility is proven, are brought to justice.

Correct identification of police officers is not only a preventive measure, but is also essential for transparency and accountability within the framework of promoting a democratic culture and guaranteeing fundamental rights. The success of this measure lies in the greater capacity of human rights entities and civil society to monitor police actions and to be able to bring to justice the most serious cases of human rights violations.

In the current context of health, economical and social crisis, derived from the COVID-19 pandemic, many international organisations foresee a rebound in mobilisations. Having tools that guarantee the democratic exercise of the fundamental rights of assembly, association and freedom of expression is now more necessary than ever.