Interview: Willy Demeyer, Mayor of Liege, February 2008

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Willy Demeyer has been Mayor of the city of Liège (Belgium) since 1999. Very fond of working on the local level, he served his city before when he was local councillor. He was also a member of the regional parliament in 2004 and 2005.

Since 2007, Willy Demeyer has also been the President of the Belgian Forum for Urban Safety. As you will read in the following interview, the city of Liège, member of the European Forum for almost 15 years, is very active in the field of crime prevention and innovative approaches.

Efus: A few months ago, the city of Liège presented its local strategy 2007-2015. In the chapter regarding safety, we find among the big priorities, the reinforcement of community police and the preventive work on the streets. Does this constitute two indispensable paths for the safety policies in a city like Liège?

Willy DEMEYER: Prevention and repression are two irrefutable tools in the fight against insecurity. This has been well understood by citizens who support this view of reality. I am convinced that it is by public action and the knowledge of local people that the police and the all other actors can contribute, by active and visible presence, to the reduce tensions. This is why I have tried to put in place a general and integrated safety policy from the beginning of my mandate, putting allying proximity and solidarity.
The project of the city of Liège is also to break down ghettos, to rediscover a sense of life in a community, to offer everyone decent housing, attractive shopping facilities, clean streets: all this still remains a work in progress. But it centres around another way to look at safety problems.

Efus: Since 2007, the city of Liège has been president of the Belgian Forum for Urban Safety. What has inspired your work in this network and what can we expect from your presidency?
Demeyer: Following the implementation of prevention policies in Belgium, Liège has always given priority to networking, both on the local level and in cooperation with other cities. Besides, we figured among the instigators of the Belgian Forum. This strategy has allowed us to develop intelligent new policies, particularly in the field of drugs or in fan management, two areas in which the work of Liège is widely recognised even abroad.
As president of the Belgian Forum, have closely monitored the implementation of “local strategies for prevention and safety 2007-2010” which replace the old Safety Contracts. I am  pleased by the duration of over four years obtained, which spared us from uncertainties during the formation of a federal government.
Furthermore, in 2008, we will put an accent on the harmonisation of preventive professions in public space (Assistants for prevention and safety, Wardens of public spaces, Urban Stewards, etc) which are now called Gardians of Peace.

EFUS: For several years, the city of Liège has held the specialist position for mediation in Belgium (a service dedicated exlusively  to the issue, diverse activities such as neighbourhood mediation, parental mediation or debt mediation, but also many innovative projects and a participation in the EuroMediation network). Which are the main reasons for this approach?

Demeyer: Our modern cities are characterised by a high level of conflict. This is particularly the case as cities bring together ever-increasing numbers of inhabitants in limited geographical spaces. Furthermore, Liège has a population of great cultural diversity, like other large European cities. I think that this diversity constitutes a great wealth and source of innovation if and only if conflicts are well managed. This is why Liège has launched the implementation of mediation tools in the communities which tackle neighbourhood conflicts, parental mediation for domestic problems, with children or in institutions, and has done so in a voluntary and dynamic way.
Can we also mention debt mediation, school mediation but also the front line mediation tools, or intermediation, which is what our urban stewards do, agents of conviviality and street educators? Strengthened by this experience, and wishing for still improving our work, we have confronted our approach to those of our European partners in research and the exchange of experiences. I would like to mention particularly the Urbact working group “Urban Safety and Cultural Diversity” which we have piloted, or the EuroMediation network within which we have been a leading partner.
In Liège, mediation thus constitutes a response well adapted to the reality in the construction of a better living together for the inhabitants of the city.

EFUS: Within the local prevention plan, the city of Liège can also count on the Fan-Coaching service, which assures a social-preventive framework for difficult fans of Standard de Liège, the local football club. Moreover, you are also personally involved in the Board of Directors of the non-profit organisation Eurofan/Fan-Coaching. As mayor and active sports fan, can you briefly describe the advantages of such structures?
Demeyer: It is obvious that the establishment of a project such as Fan Coaching has largely contributed to the reduction of incidents during football matches and that this represents a great advantage in the handling of sports events, including for the police forces. We have also been inspired on several occasions  by these methods during other large events such as the Tour de France, the City Parade, the Giro etc. Once more, the local work we do has allowed some recognition and to valorise this on the European level in programmes such as EUROFAN which brings together the largest clubs in Europe, and where Liège is known as an important actor in prevention work in this field.

A recent Best Practice example from Liège concerns a project of prevention and support of victims of domestic violence (“Domestic violence always hurts. My strength is to speak out!”). Can you tell us something about this project and the reasons for its implementation?   

Demeyer: Unfortunately, our interest in this subject comes from a particularly painful incident when a young woman was murdered on the street. This tragedy has made us realise that it was urgent to sensitise the population about certain behaviours and the dangers that can ensue. Nevertheless, we also wished to sensitise the perpetrators of violence so that they become conscience of the abnormality of certain behaviours. This was the first in a series of actions that we have developed together with the non-profit sector. This actions has been heard within the entire French speaking community in Belgium.
I hope to put in place an alert system aimed at the protection of women in serious danger of being attacked by their ex-partners soon.

EFUS: Finally, would you please tell us which are the great challenges for the city of Liège in terms of safety and social cohesion in 2008?

Demeyer: This year again, the management of drug dependency occupies an important place in the field of public health, prevention and safety. We should, in the coming months, concretise our pilot project in heroine distribution under medical controle, with the help of different hospitals and the support of the University of Liège. And of course I will continue to defend the implementation of the ensemble of the Strategic Plan on Drug Abuse among the Belgian authorities.
In the field of social cohesion, we will put the accent on the work in neighbourhoods where we reinforce current projects with a possible extension to other neighbourhoods, such as in the domain of mediation.
Besides, we maintain all projects which have been running over many years with our services in intergenerational and intercultural areas, with the extension of the “Equality-Diversity” lavel that the city has been awarded by the federal government.
In this framework, we wish to reinforce diversity in work places, fight against discriminations and stereotypes through the conception and implementation of an internal diversity police for the city of Liège. This demands to overcome two challenges:
– to meet growing diversity of users particularly on the cultural level
– to meet growing diversity of workers regarding in particular the extension of careers, the growing presence of women in the labour market, immigration, employment of handicapped persons etc – and all this with respect to current legislation.