BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Tarek Chatt says he is one of only two Brussels policemen of Moroccan descent who grew up and is working in the same streets as the Islamist militants who attacked Paris and Brussels.
Police and security experts say increasing police diversity in communities like the largely Muslim borough of Molenbeek, where a key suspect in the Paris attacks lived and then hid, is crucial for improving intelligence and spotting radicalization.
While Belgian officials want more tip-offs to prevent the kind of militant attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015 and 32 people in the Brussels metro and airport on March 22, they have struggled to open the police to the country’s Muslim minority.
On the eve of the anniversary of the Brussels attacks, Prime Minister Charles Michel told Reuters Belgium was “very determined” to recruit a force that would better mirror the diversity of the population.
Police say they struggle most with surveillance of communities like Molenbeek, where the mostly white force is viewed with suspicion by a largely immigrant population wary of being labeled as potential terrorists.
Belgium does not keep statistics on religion or race, but an estimated seven percent of the population is Muslim - rising to 45 percent in Molenbeek, independent researchers say.
Officers like Chatt, who joined the force in 1999 as part of an earlier drive to recruit from the country’s large Moroccan minority, find their loyalties questioned by both sides.
“Back then, it was hard. People were negative. They took me for a snitch,” said Chatt, 48, who chose to serve in his home borough.
But now they are pleased, he says.
“People are proud to see someone of North African origin in uniform; they see it as fair ... They listen more.”
On patrol of the crowded Sunday market in Molenbeek’s cobbled streets, he exchanged greetings with vendors, many of them the sons of migrants invited to Belgium to work in coal mines and factories in the 1960s and 70s.
He said his shared culture and language help him create a rapport with people in a borough where many only speak Arabic.
Officers familiar with the streets of Brussels - where groups like Islamic State have the highest per capita recruitment rate in Europe - have an easier time spotting early signs of radicalization among youths.
At least 422 have left Brussels to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen.
Chatt says he sometimes translates for his partner, who stands out with her short-cropped blond hair.
In a cheeky symbol of resistance to terror, she wears a patch on her uniform that shows Belgium’s Manneken Pis statue peeing on the lit fuse of a bomb - an emblem taken up by many officers after the attacks.
Despite the pride that Chatt says the Molenbeek community feels toward him, there is still stigma attached to working for the police and this is one of the main barriers to recruitment.
In the security clampdown since the attacks, police have carried out hundreds of raids and arrests that have sharpened tensions with police among some Muslims.
“They (the police) are seen as the state and the Muslim community has shut down,” said Vincent Gilles, the head of Belgium’s main police union.
Human rights watchdogs, including the U.N. and Belgium’s own public equality defender, voiced concerns over an upsurge in complaints of police abuse linked to racism since the attacks.
Human Rights Watch said it knew of at least two dozen cases of police using racist slurs and four cases of beatings in Brussels from February last year through November.
Prime Minister Michel said Belgium was pushing for a police that is “as open as possible”: “we have to permanently fight racism,” Michel told Reuters on Tuesday.
Muslims in uniform have also felt the heat. One group of officers complained in an open letter in April of having their loyalties questioned by fellow officers despite feeling they were more at risk of being attacked by the Islamic State.
“We are the first to fear for our lives,” they wrote, saying they had taken to changing out of uniform before leaving the police station for home in recent months.
“The racism is institutional; it’s devastating,” said one senior Muslim police officer.
Theo Van Gasse, police commissioner in Belgium’s northern district, said that despite efforts to better integrate minorities, at least four officers under his command complained of racist jibes in the month after the Brussels bombings.
“If you can’t even manage diversity within the police, how are you going to manage it outside,” he said.
In Molenbeek, where almost one in two young people are out of work, Chatt says some have asked him for advice on how to join the police.
Some are disqualified by the lack of a degree or a criminal record. If they do make it to the federal exam, they struggle with the force’s rigorous Dutch and French language, cognitive, physical and personality tests.
“There are some people who could have their place in the police but, unfortunately, they fail,” Chatt said.
Last January, the country’s largest police force in Antwerp launched a pilot program to recruit officers locally, particularly with migrant backgrounds, and bypass the tough federal entrance exam.
Nearly half Antwerp’s residents have an immigrant background, but only 7 percent of the 2,600-strong police do.
If successful, authorities have said they could implement the program nationwide.
Antwerp police received over 1,000 applications. Out of 30 selected, six had immigrant roots, a proportion more than twice that of the current Antwerp police force.
The push to increase diversity, Muslim officers say, is particularly needed among the more senior police ranks. “I started at the bottom of the ladder and little by little I climbed up,” said Chatt, now an inspector.
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Giles Elgood