IGC Podcast: Inclusivity and Innovation in Law Enforcement

For the May 2024 episode of the IGC podcast, we are joined by Catherine de Bolle, Executive Director of Europol. She discusses the importance of fostering diversity and inclusion in a traditionally male-dominated field and highlights the critical intersection of inclusivity, innovation and law enforcement. 


Hannah Reinl

Hello and welcome to a new episode of the IGC podcast. My name is Hannah Reinl, and I’m with the International Gender Champions Secretariat in Geneva.

Today, I am joined by one of our Champions based in The Hague: Catherine de Bolle, Executive Director of Europol.

Before taking up her current position in May 2018, Catherine De Bolle headed the Federal Police of the Kingdom of Belgium, as she was appointed Commissioner General in 2012. In both her posts as Executive Director of Europol and Commissioner General, she was the first woman ever to serve in that role. Prior to her appointment as Commissioner General, Ms. De Bolle was Chief of Police for the city of Ninove. She was also a member of INTERPOL's Executive Committee from November 2015 to November 2018. Ms. De Bolle studied law at Ghent University and is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Gendarmerie in Belgium- and fun fact: In January 2015, she was awarded the title of Public Manager of the Year in Belgium.

Welcome Director!

Catherine de Bolle

Thank you.

Hannah Reinl

One of your commitments this year, as a The Hague Gender Champion, is to "Ensure that Diversity and Inclusion matters are integrated within Europol’s work on Innovations for Law Enforcement". These two topics (Diversity and Inclusion on the one hand, innovations for law enforcement on the other hand) are not often displayed together.

Can you tell us more about why we need them in synergy, and how you go about implementing this commitment in practice?

Catherine de Bolle

Yes, and thank you for having me today. It's important for me and for the community of law enforcement agents. On your question, let me first tell you why and it's about two simple observations. First, new technologies for law enforcement are very important. We live in the digital environment with encrypted communications, big data, artificial intelligence, and this is exploited by criminals. But also, we are confronted with a lot of changes within the society, so the future of law enforcement and the future of policing lies in the ability to innovate and to adapt very quickly to these new technologies. So, we have to take it on board. And second, it's a matter of principle. Because of the fundamental mission of policing, we have to be sure that we can ensure security and safety. We have to be sure that we govern our agencies in a fair way, and we have to do this without prejudice. And that is why inclusion is a principle as much as it is a practice, and that is why we decided this year to focus on innovation and inclusivity because innovation without inclusiveness is only half of the victory. So, we want to make Europe safer for everybody, and this has to be done in a fair and equal way, and that is why we decided to have the focus on innovation during this year's diversity and inclusion day.

The thing is that people, police officers working within the law enforcement community can be biased, and so it has also affected the tools we will use in the future. And the tools we are using already now can be biased and that is why we need to put focus on the human touch when we use new technologies.

For the Diversity Day at Europol this year, we did a small test. We produced an AI generated picture of the Europol Executive Director and the picture we got out of the system was not comparable to me. It was a picture that would have been good 40 years ago with white, old, male policemen, but today it is not the case anymore. We have a lot of policemen and -women in high-ranking positions and the picture did not reflect anymore the actual setup of the way we are policing nowadays and the way we govern our organizations nowadays. So, it was quite a surprise. But I am sure if you would ask people in the streets, how a director of Europol or a director of a national police workforce would look like, they would all refer to the male environment to a male white man heading a police force.

So, we are biased. AI tools are biased. That's why we have to focus on it and that's why we need the human checks when we use AI tools in our police work.

And then let me focus on the ‘How’. How do we use innovation in the policing environment. It's also a matter of principle. We have to incorporate innovation in the operational tools we use. We have to embed new technologies in our strategic planning. And we have to integrate diversity and inclusion reflections at all times when we deploy new technologies.

Concretely at Europol, how do we do this? We developed the accountability principle for our artificial intelligence so that we are sure that we use artificial intelligence in a responsible way. We have introduced the category focused on “ethics, diversity and inclusion” as part of the Europol Excellency Award for Innovation and we made the topic of innovation at the heart of the Europol Diversity Day, as I mentioned.

And furthermore, we are preparing to publish a report on AI biases in the coming months, which will discuss the methods for law enforcement to mitigate these biases and mitigating biases can be done by artificial intelligence systems.

Hannah Reinl

I see there is lots going on at Europol. A sentence to note down from what you said really is: ‘Inclusion is a practice as much as it has to be a practice.' And thank you for sharing this very illustrative example as to how bias plays out in AI.

So you already talked about the Europol Diversity Day, which focused this year on law enforcement innovation and it aims, among other things, at spreading awareness and stimulating these kinds of conversations among staff and external participants.

What were some of your key takeaways from the event that you held this year?

Catherine de Bolle

Key takeaways from the event we had this year is that, in fact, when we started the creation in 2019, we see that it is still very relevant. We still need to raise awareness and we still need to understand and to discuss the diversity challenges and the opportunities specifically to the law enforcement environment.

We had many good feedbacks received from staff and participants. When we focus on diversity and inclusion that they feel more included, more integrated, and more involved in the organization. And it is very important that we bring the topic on the table because people feel more safe and secure in the environment they work in. And I also know that a lot of fellow police chiefs take these efforts in the national law enforcement environment. But what we also see is that we have to recognize that we have to continue to make efforts. At Europol for instance, 34% of all staff is women and only 22% of the middle and the senior management is occupied by women leaders.

So, there is still a lot of progress to be made and I believe in the law enforcement community we still have a long way to go. So that is why we need to put the issue of diversity and inclusion on the table. I also see and what we also learned from our initiatives is that the big take away is, if we focus on during days for diversity and inclusion and diversity and inclusion, we do not reach the audience we want to reach. We need to make always the link with the operational interest, and we need to invest in that and we need to showcase that when you invest in diversity and inclusion you also will deliver better police services to the overall public. And that is why we made the choice this year to include innovation in diversity and inclusion, because then we can showcase that new technologies also mean new responsibilities. And in the digital area we also need to take diversity and inclusion on board because representation matters and we see that we need minorities and women in key roles in the overall environment and this includes fields like cybersecurity, like technological developments and data science.

But there are still a few questions that are pending. For instance, in what do we have to invest most in data and in training our data or in how people, how police officers use the data in the daily work and how do they prevent in fact discrimination when they use the data? That is something we will need to explore further on, because we have to find the right balance.

Then also for instance, how can new technologies assist law enforcement in fighting crime and discrimination? When we look, for instance, at gender-based violence? What is the role of AI and other technologies to introduce controlled data biases and to prevent prejudices? So, there are still a lot of questions that are pending and that is why we have to keep the debate ongoing and alive.

Hannah Reinl

There certainly are still many open questions and I think I would like to take this opportunity to dive a little deeper into one of those. So, talking about technologies, the IGC launched a campaign last year that was called “I Say No to Sexism Online”. The aim of this campaign was to raise awareness on the pervasiveness of technology-facilitated gender-based violence, which particularly targets women, girls, and marginalized populations.

From a law enforcement perspective, what do you believe can we do to further the fight against gender-based violence online and what are maybe some activities that you implement at Europol?

Catherine de Bolle

So, gender-based violence is not typically within Europol's mandate, and it's important to mention this because we have to respect the mandate of Europol and we also have to respect the limits of our mandate. But it is not a standalone aspect of our work and there are various crime areas when we think, for instance, of trafficking in human beings’ threat to lives, which can of course manifest forms of gender-based violence, and then we can be involved.

At Europol, what we see is that when we monitor the criminal trends, we see that crime, digitalization is on the rise is increasing. It is a major trend we see in our area and the digitalization has facilitated some crimes and complicated and made the investigations more complex. And this is certainly the case for gender-based violence and crimes related to that. And this is something that we also observe when dealing with cases of online crime, which need specific tools and need specific capacities. In the European Union, we now have the Digital Services Act, and it  gave us supplementary responsibilities at Europol.

We receive the notifications from major online platforms regarding threat to life cases and in that area, we have a responsibility to make sure that this content is taken offline.

So that is why we also need to reach out to private partners. And we have to be sure that also these private parties take up their responsibility. We are facing new areas of risks with the advancement of the technologies. What we see is the abuse of fake news, of deep fakes used to create fake sexual content on teenage girls. This was investigated, for instance, by our colleagues in Spain. We have to be aware of that. New technologies also represent a profound risk when in hands of criminals, we have to be aware of that. And we have to try to identify how criminals will make use of these new technologies and we have to make sure that we have access to the data. In the past 10-20 years ago, the problem was availability of data. Now the problem is accessibility of data, and we see as law enforcement that we do not always have access to the data we need to protect victims and to make sure that we can continue to create the secure and the safe environment in the European Union.

Hannah Reinl

Certainly, some very concerning trends that you outlined there. So, I could just keep going, but unfortunately we have a bit of a time limit on this podcast, so I will start asking you our last question for today, which is: As a Gender Champion, is there a piece of advice or something that you would like to share with fellow leaders and your fellow Gender Champions?

Catherine de Bolle

I really believe that one person can make a difference and I really believe that leaders are in a unique position to drive the change and it is part of the responsibility from the leadership aspect.

And it is essential that we embrace in fact innovation and that we make the link to diversity and inclusion. And it is very important that we listen, we listen, and we have to be alert to new ideas. We have to look for talents, we have to mentor the talents if it is possible.

And we have to be willing to change our minds when necessary. It is very important I think we do it in the physical world. We also have to do it in the digital environment. I think what is making us different - the role of the humans when we look at technology- is our integrity. Integrity is extremely important. And we have to lead as an example and maintain the trust of the public and of our fellow of our colleagues. So, my advice is: We have to innovate. We have to listen. We have to be mentors. We have to take initiatives and let us try to set the example through integrity and to inspire future leaders. And leaders have to be diverse leaders, or they are not relevant.

Hannah Reinl

On this very inspiring note, Director, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing how we can and how we must think gender, diversity, and law enforcement together. Thank you.

Catherine de Bolle

Thank you very much for this opportunity.