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Excesses followed by lies

The death of a businessman in custody has cast a shadow on the procedures of the Catalan police

The death of José Andrés Benítez in the so-called “Gayeixample” neighborhood of Barcelona occurred after the 50-year-old businessman was involved in a street fight, and was then arrested by the Catalan police (known as the Mossos d’Esquadra). The circumstances of these events have once again cast an unfavorable light on the behavior of the force. Aside from the eventual conclusions of the judicial investigation currently underway into the exact cause of Benítez’s death, it is already clear that senior officers from the Mossos have resorted to falsehoods when giving explanations of what happened.

The version that they offered of the arrest, which appears in the official police report, states that the detainee himself struck his head against a wall. But this is in stark contrast to two videos recorded by witnesses, which offer a very different story.

The judge investigating the incident has demanded that the eight officers who took part in the arrest be identified, because, contrary to the details of the police report, the videos show that the detainee was subdued with extreme violence, despite being unarmed. What’s more, the fight he had got into with another person was already over. It also shows that he was punched and kicked by several policemen when he had already been subdued and was lying on the ground. Shortly afterward he fainted, and then died after being taken to hospital.

While the incident is undoubtedly serious, it would not have caused such an outcry were it not for the fact that the Catalan regional police have acquired a reputation for such abuses. And in many cases, these abuses have at first been denied by the Mossos, before being corroborated by a judicial investigation. There is something seriously wrong when a police force is being accused of abusive or disproportionate use of violence on such a regular basis.

Shortly after the investigation into this case began, the Barcelona High Court convicted another policeman for an arrest very similar to that of Benítez, which had also been taped by an onlooker as it happened. Meanwhile, the head of the Mossos recently appeared in the Catalan parliament to offer the fifth version of the events that saw a woman called Ester Quintana lose an eye during a peaceful demonstration — allegedly due to the impact from a rubber bullet fired by officers. He could not even promise that this would be the last version.

Failure in upper ranks

The Mossos are not the only police force to have had legal problems for excessive use of force. But the frequency with which the Mossos are in the news and in the courts indicates that there is a failure in the upper ranks of the force when it comes to ensuring that policemen on the street exercise a proper degree of self-control.

The manner in which top officers and commissioners have dealt with these cases also reveals an arrogant, authoritarian conception of the role of the authorities. Not only have they violated our right to expect them to speak the truth, but also, in some cases, they have crossed a red line in terms of their unacceptable foot-dragging when it comes to cooperating with the justice system. A change of course is urgently required.