The COVID-19 pandemic and the role of the police

Dr Jonas Grutzpalk – Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Applied Sciences for Police and Public Administration in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany – conducted research on how police work had been affected by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Grutzpalk teaches at the North Rhine-Westphalia Police, where the curriculum touches on many different topics ranging from ethics, sociology, intercultural skills to various branches of law (criminal, traffic, civil service) and the so-called “police subjects”, such as forensic sciences, tactics, traffic management, etc.

From this standpoint, the doctor raised several questions: How does coronavirus change these issues? How does COVID-19 affect police education? And in what way? Are the police controlling the pandemic right now learning important lessons that should be taught to future police generations? Could it be that police forces are learning something about pandemic surveillance that should be taught at police academies across Europe?

In a series of interviews with police officers, both in and out of the workplace, he asked what they thought the police, as an institution, had learned during the pandemic, and what kind of learning processes they would like to see as a result. Their responses touched on various topics, but particularly highlighted the growing problem of violent scepticism towards the measures taken to flatten the curve of new infections.

Communication. Some interviewees argued that communicating with people on the street has become more difficult because wearing masks makes it hard for them to express themselves through facial gestures. Similarly, deciphering the emotional state of the people the police deal with has also become more challenging.

Self-protection. Spitting on police officers has long been used as a weapon to express contempt. With the advent of COVID-19, this form of physical attack has taken on a new and more dangerous significance because it could also be intended to infect police officers with coronavirus intentionally. Police officers’ self-protection, which is an essential part of their training, covers issues ranging from avoiding fierce attacks to avoiding encounters that could lead to infection. However, by its very nature, this widens the distance between police and public, which is something the interviewees tried to avoid whenever possible. It remains to be seen how police officers can maintain a level of accessibility to the people they deal with while still protecting themselves from harm.

Online teaching. The main concerns expressed in this context relate to students’ emotional well-being, but also, given that some of the material is classified, the content of what is taught. Police education is attempting to address the issue of online education, and there have been many lessons learned along the way.

Working from home and administrative tasks. One of the interviewees raised the issue of whether the police should be able to work from home. One of the main issues here is, of course, data security, but there seems to be a cultural issue as well.

These few examples show how the current pandemic has highlighted some important lessons that need to be learned with regard to modern policing. And they are many more that could be mentioned. What’s interesting about these lessons is:

a) the extent to which they could be institutionalised

b) how they might affect police conduct in everyday life

c) whether they will ever be learned or simply ignored


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The European Council approves the EU drugs strategy for 2021-2025

Last month, the European Council approved the EU strategy setting out the political framework and priorities for the EU’s drug policy in the period 2021-2025. The strategy aims to ensure a high level of health promotion, social stability and security and contribute to awareness-raising. On the basis of this strategy, the Council will prepare an action plan which will set out concrete measures to achieve these priorities.

With this strategy, the EU and its member states reaffirm their commitment to an approach which is based on evidence, comprehensive and balanced between demand and supply reduction of drugs, with the preservation of human rights at its core.

With regard to drug supply reduction the strategy targets all aspects of the illicit drug market, and includes the prevention of, dissuasion from and disruption of drug-related crime, particularly organised crime, through judicial and law enforcement cooperation, confiscation of criminal assets, investigations and border management.

This priority area has been further enhanced compared to the 2013-2020 strategy to respond to the challenging developments in European drug markets. These are characterised by the high availability of various types of drugs, ever-larger seizures, increasing use of violence, huge profits, and the use of social media platforms, apps and the internet and darknet for illicit drug trafficking. Such features have not faded during the COVID-19 crisis, to the contrary.

The drug-demand-reduction policy area consists of a range of mutually reinforcing measures including prevention, early detection and intervention, counselling, treatment, rehabilitation, social reintegration and recovery. Such action needs to be appropriate to the local social context and the needs of the target population, be informed by scientific evidence and be safe and effective. It needs to be developed through close collaboration between a number of health and social support services.  The COVID-19 crisis has further revealed the need to ensure the continuity of these actions.

A new chapter has been added to address drug-related harm. This section includes measures and policies to prevent or reduce the possible health and social risks and harm for users, for society and in prison settings. It covers aspects such as reducing the prevalence and incidence of drug-related infectious diseases, preventing overdoses and drug-related deaths and providing alternatives to coercive sanctions.

The strategy also identifies three cross-cutting themes in support of the policy areas:

International cooperation: enhancing the role of the EU as a global broker for a people-centred and human rights-oriented drug policy through cooperation with third countries, regions and international organisations, while strengthening the commitment to development-orientated drug policies and alternative development measures.

• Research, innovation and foresight: providing the EU and member states with the necessary comprehensive research and foresight capacities to address drug challenges in a more agile and proactive manner, increasing preparedness to respond to future challenges.• Coordination, governance and implementation: ensuring optimal implementation of the strategy, including via the key action of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and of Europol, involving civil society and providing adequate resources at EU and national level to achieve this.


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The European Council adopts conclusions on the digital future of Europe

In December 2020, the European Council approved conclusions that acknowledge the increased use of consumer products and industrial devices connected to the internet and the related risks for privacy, information security and cybersecurity.

It believes connected devices, including machines, sensors and networks that make up the Internet of Things (IoT), will play a key role in further shaping Europe’s digital future.

The conclusions set out priorities to address this crucial issue and to boost the global competitiveness of the EU’s IoT industry by ensuring the highest standards of resilience, safety and security.

They also underline the importance of assessing the need for horizontal legislation in the long term to address all relevant aspects of the cybersecurity of connected devices, such as availability, integrity and confidentiality. This would include specifying the necessary conditions for placement on the market.

Some of the conclusions reached are:

  • That the European Union and its Member States need to ensure their digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy, while preserving an open economy.
  • That in addition to ensuring a high level of security of connected devices, it is equally important to increase consumer awareness of their potential privacy and security risks.
  • That there is a need to establish cybersecurity norms, standards or technical specifications for connected devices and efforts undertaken by European Standards Organisations in this matter should be strengthened.
  • That cybersecurity and privacy must be an essential part of product innovation, production and development processes, including the design phase, and must be guaranteed throughout a product’s entire life cycle and across its supply chain.

Lastly, cybersecurity certification, as defined under the Cybersecurity Act, will be essential for raising the level of security within the digital single market. The EU Agency for Cybersecurity, ENISA , is already working on cybersecurity certification schemes, and the conclusions invite the Commission to consider a request for candidate cybersecurity certification schemes for connected devices and related services.


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New report on drone usage by the US police

In December, the US Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) published a new report with its partners at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) entitled ‘Roadmap to Implementing an Effective Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Programme. Drones, as UAS are generally known, present one of the most exciting frontiers in law enforcement by giving departments an essential tool with which to gather vital situational data without placing law enforcement professionals in harm’s way. The report is a guide to launching a drone programme and is available on the COPS Office website.

The report on the use of drones by public safety agencies is a wake-up call about the threat of malicious drone attacks.

Last year, the COPS office, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the PERF convened a two-day conference for experts across the law enforcement community on drones, their use and implementation, and attendant policy and operational issues. Representatives from several agencies presented on several topics:

  • Regulations, community concerns, budgetary matters, and promising practices for setting up programmes for the use of drones in law enforcement
  • Recommendations for operating such a programme, including training and staffing
  • Counter-use matters, such as detection and disabling technology and dangerous illegal drone use by bad actors

This report summarises the information discussed at that conference and also presents lessons learned and promising practices gathered from interviews, policy reviews, and survey data.  The presentations and discussions from this event have informed all of our UAS work going forward.

This report is about two opposite but related issues: 

  • The use of drones by police agencies to protect public safety. 
  • The use of drones by malicious actors to commit various crimes such as acts of terrorism.  Thus, the story of drones is about two radically different sides of the same coin.

A number of federal and local law enforcement agencies have begun to explore counter-drone strategies at major events and mass gatherings such as the Super Bowl. But this work is still developing. Federal, state, and local lawmakers and government officials, including law enforcement officials, should accelerate their efforts to address these issues as soon as possible.

All law enforcement agencies, whether or not they wish to begin a programme for using drones for their own purposes, must consider a related but far more difficult challenge: how to anticipate, prevent, detect, and respond to the criminal use of drones, including use by terrorists.  For example, terrorists could use drones to drop a bomb or spray a poisonous gas over large crowds of people at a public event. Drones also can be extremely effective at reconnaissance for criminal purposes because they can fly past bollards, checkpoints, and other security mechanisms.


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New operation to crack down on money laundering

Law enforcement authorities from 26 countries and Europol took part in European Money Mule Action ‘EMMA 6’, a worldwide operation against money mule schemes. Between September and November 2020, EMMA 6 was carried out for the sixth consecutive year with the support of the European Banking Federation (EBF), FinTech FinCrime Exchange, INTERPOL and Western Union. As a result, 4 031 money mules were identified alongside 227 money mule recruiters, and 422 individuals were arrested worldwide.

During the span of the operation, 1 529 criminal investigations were initiated.  With the support of the private sector, including more than 500 banks and financial institutions, 4 942 fraudulent money mule transactions were identified, preventing a total loss estimated at € 33.5 million.

Money mules are individuals who, often unwittingly, have been recruited by criminal organisations as money laundering agents to hide the origin of ill-gotten money.  Unaware that they are engaging in criminal activities, and tricked by the promise of easy money, mules transfer stolen funds between accounts, often in different countries, on behalf of others.  In exchange, they receive a commission for their services.

While mules are recruited via numerous routes such as direct contact or through email, criminals are increasingly turning to social media to recruit new accomplices, through the advertisement of fake jobs offers, online pop-up ads and instant messaging applications.  Although some COVID-19 related cases have been reported, payment process compromise and romance scams continue to be the most recurrent schemes. The use of cryptocurrencies by money mules is also on the rise.  The use of cryptocurrencies by money mules is also on the rise.

Europol and EU law enforcement authorities together with international partners and financial institutions launched the #DontBeaMule campaign to raise awareness among the public on the risks of money mule schemes.

The campaign, promoted nationally by competent authorities, is designed to inform the public about how criminals operate, how they can protect themselves and what to do if they become involved.

What do you risk as a money mule?

• physical attacks or threats if you don’t continue to cooperate with the criminals

• prison sentence, fine or community service

• a criminal record that could seriously affect the rest of your life, such as never being able to secure a mortgage or open a bank account.

What can you do?

If you think you might be used as a mule, act now before it is too late: stop transferring money and notify your bank and your national police immediately.

Operation EMMA is part of an ongoing project conducted under the umbrella of the EMPACT Cybercrime Payment Fraud Operational Action Plan, designed to combat online and payment card fraud, led by the Netherlands. 

During this operation, Europol supported the coordination and preparation of operational meetings, delivered analysis and facilitated the exchange of information between law enforcement authorities and private partners.  Furthermore, Europol coordinated the awareness campaign with the participating countries.


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2020 cybercrime report

Europol published its Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) last October. The IOCTA seeks to inform decision makers on a strategic, tactical and operational level about the threats posed by cybercrime. The 2020 IOCTA helps to set the priorities for the 2021 operational action plans, which follow the three priorities defined below:

1) To interrupt criminal activities related to computer system attacks.

2) To fight against the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children, including the production and transfer of material.

3) To target criminals involved in fraud and counterfeiting of non-cash payment methods, including large-scale payment card fraud (especially non-card fraud), emerging threats for other non-cash payment methods and the possibility of activities.

In addition, the IOCTA seeks to consolidate findings on current cyberthreats, which could contribute to the discussion on research and development priorities as well as planning on an EU level.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the unfortunate potential of this crisis on our daily lives around the world. As physical boundaries became the norm, cybercrime has become more prominent than ever before. In any case, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how cybercrime remains the same. However, cybercriminals are adapting the specific characteristics of their approach to the social context with a view to improving their success rate. The difference with COVID-19 is that, owing to the physical restrictions implemented in order to prevent the spread of the virus, which led to an increase in people working from home and accessing business resources remotely, many people and companies, who did not previously hold such an online presence, are now a lucrative target.

Traditional cybercrimes, such as phishing and cyber-skill scams, quickly exploited social vulnerabilities, with many citizens and businesses seeking information, answers and sources of help during this time. The spread of misinformation increases the chance of cybercrime occurring. The pandemic also gave rise to misinformation campaigns and activities.

Social engineering remains a major threat in the facilitation of other kinds of cybercrimes. The use of encrypted chat applications and industry proposals to expand this market entails a substantial risk of abuse, and makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to detect and investigate criminal activity online.

Online communities of cybercriminals present considerable resistance and are continually evolving. Finally, live streaming of child sexual abuse continues to increase, and has become even more frequent during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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Artificial intelligence threats

According to a new report from Europol published in November, criminals leverage artificial intelligence for malicious use. The document draws attention to the potential benefits of the technology, such as greater efficiency, automation and autonomy, but also warns of the growing risks that come with it. Cybercriminals have always been early adopters of the latest technology, and AI is no different.

The jointly developed new report from Europol, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and Trend Micro, looks into current and predicted criminal uses of artificial intelligence (AI). The document provides law enforcers, policymakers and other organisations with information on existing and potential attacks leveraging AI and recommendations on how to mitigate these risks.

The report concludes that cybercriminals will leverage AI as an attack surface. Deepfakes are currently the best-known use of AI as an attack vector. However, the report warns that new screening technology will be needed in the future to mitigate the risk of disinformation campaigns and extortion, as well as threats that target AI data sets.

For example, AI could be used to support:

• Convincing social engineering attacks at scale.

• Document-scraping malware to make attacks more efficient.

• Evasion of image recognition and voice biometrics.

• Ransomware attacks, through intelligent targeting and evasion.

• Data pollution, by identifying blind spots in detection rules.

The paper also warns that AI systems are being developed to enhance the effectiveness of malware and to disrupt anti-malware and facial recognition systems.

To conclude the report, the three organisations make several recommendations:

• Harness the potential of AI technology as a crime-fighting tool to protect the cybersecurity industry and facilitate its policing.

• Continue research to stimulate the development of defensive technology.

• Promote and develop secure AI design frameworks.

• Leverage public-private partnerships and establish multidisciplinary expert groups.


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Controversy surrounds France’s new security law

France’s new global security law, which has already been debated in the National Assembly, has provoked an outcry from organisations defending fundamental rights and freedoms, parties, trade unions and the media. They consider it a grave threat to the freedom of expression and information and demand, in particular, the withdrawal of the controversial Article 24.

After five hours of tense debate, with intense exchanges between some MPs and Interior Minister Gérald Damanin, the National Assembly approved the controversial article by 146 votes in favour, compared to 24 votes not in favour.

The provision, which is discretionary and subjective by nature, gives the police the right to detain anyone who records them merely on the grounds that they feel uncomfortable being recorded. According to its opponents, it impinges on press freedoms and weakens any attempt to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for excesses in their operations.

Article 24 of the bill promoted by the French Government would impose up to a year in prison and sanctions of up to €45,000 for spreading images of the face of a law enforcement officer with intent to “attack their physical or mental integrity”.

The controversial article responds to genuine concern among French law enforcement officers, who for years have been subjected to significant tensions in the fight against terrorism, social uprisings that have often led to hostility against police officials, including the municipal police, and hate campaigns on social media.

A second contentious article authorises law enforcement officers to carry their regulatory weapon in a public building, even when they are not on duty. This change seeks to address situations like the attack that took place in the Bataclan in November 2015, which saw 90 people killed, including three off-duty police officers who were unable to intervene.

There have been numerous protests against the passing of the law. These have been supported by some left-wing forces and unions, as well as far-left groups, with slogans such as: “Drop your guns, we’ll drop our phones”, “Orwell was right”, “A camera has never killed anyone” or “Global security, total impunity”.

Claire Hédon, France’s Defender of Rights, also intervened in the controversy, calling Article 24 a “violation of freedom of expression that is neither necessary, appropriate or proportionate, and which will, at the same time, act as an obstacle to monitoring law enforcement”.

Hédon believes the bill has three fundamental flaws. Firstly, there is no need for new laws because the current ones already protect the police and gendarmes; the second is the ambiguity of the wording, and the third is that the restrictive interpretation could lead journalists to self-censor. She added that any restriction on freedom of information requires rigorous contemplation and should not be passed for circumstantial reasons.


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How COVID-19 is affecting crime

Last month, Europol published a report on how COVID-19 has been affecting crime and terrorism in the EU.

While the pandemic is first and foremost a global public health crisis, it has also proven to have a significant and potentially long-lasting impact on the organised crime and terrorism landscape in Europe, as well as the ability of Member State law enforcement authorities to counter security threats.

While Europe is in the grip of a second wave of the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on crime has changed over time. Although some types of crime are here to stay, others come and go with the evolution of the pandemic and its measures. Greater awareness has, however, reduced the impact of some types of crime.

Europol’s report highlights some of the criminal activities to have gained prominence, such as the distribution of counterfeit personal protective equipment, and fake pharmaceutical and sanitary products. An increase in robberies of medical facilities and pharmacies has also been reported.

The area of child sexual abuse has remained a grave concern during the pandemic; with children spending more time online, the risk is potentially increased.

While the number of domestic robberies and common thefts has generally declined in the immediate aftermath of the introduced COVID-19 control measures, these crimes have been on the rise since the easing of the lockdown restrictions. There has been a notable rise in the number of reported robberies of unoccupied commercial premises, ATM attacks, copper theft and light construction vehicle theft.

Criminals have also used various types of schemes involving deception, such as the impersonation of representatives from public authorities or medical staff to gain access to private homes and businesses and steal from them.

Pandemic-themed campaigns have appeared across a wide range of cybercrime activities, including phishing campaigns, ransomware, malware and business email compromise attacks. Healthcare and health-related organisations have also been targeted and fallen victim to ransomware attacks.

The impact of the crisis on the EU drug market appears to have been limited. Some criminals had adapted their modus operandi for the distribution of drugs in order to circumvent barriers. An increase in violence and tensions between drug users has also been identified.

The impact of the pandemic on terrorism and violent extremism has been limited and primarily involved some extremists adapting narratives and propaganda materials to the COVID-19 topic.


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