Asking hard questions when work and family loyalty are in conflict

A police officer takes lessons from loss

man caught in decision making process
Image Credit: Ping Zhu

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 20 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

Peter Muyshondt is a high-ranking police officer in Antwerp, Belgium with over 20 years of experience in law enforcement. In that time he quickly rose to deputy chief of police while watching over the country’s second largest city.

“I was trained to fight drugs,” says Muyshondt about what has consumed most of his career. “Drugs are illegal — you have to fight it with quite an amount of police capacity — fighting drug trade and use. I was convinced we were making the world a better place by arresting dealers and getting all those dirty things out of society.”

But as he rose in the ranks, a small sense of dread began to build. Throughout much of his police career, his brother lived in Antwerp where he worked. His brother was also addicted to drugs and often committed small crimes. Muyshondt grappled with the question of whether or not he’d arrest his own brother if they ever crossed paths on the streets. But they still had a relationship on his days off.

Peter in his uniform as the Deputy Chief of Police of Voorkempen. Images courtesy of Peter Muyshondt

“We often got together in Antwerp,” says Muyshondt “I was a policeman, he was a bad guy and we laughed about it. Those were funny moments at the bar, I was always referring to his criminal record and we had a few beers and I always had to pay for it because he didn’t have the money.”

It was a long road for both brothers to get to that point. They had both made problematic choices throughout their childhoods. His younger brother started using narcotics as a teen and quickly progressed to harder drugs. Peter chose to head off to military school at age 16, where rigid rules provided some badly needed boundaries in his life. It also gave him a strong world view, and established right and wrong.

Once on the police force, Muyshondt became known as an expert on spotting drug use. He could identify paraphernalia and addiction behaviors in suspects thanks to his experience seeing the same things from his brother.

Muyshondt had developed a strategy to exist as a police officer and brother of a criminal drug addict, but he always dreaded the call that his brother had been arrested.

He wasn’t prepared for the other call. “It was my mother who got the first call,” he says “‘Listen, your son was found in Holland, overdosed.’”

His brother’s death hit Muyshondt hard. “When he died, everything suddenly changed,” he says “He has become my inspiration, my motivation at this time, but not when he was alive. Then he was more like a threat, problem, and that’s not… I’m ashamed of it.”

That shame led to some reevaluation. He started to wonder whether his department’s aggressive approach to controlling drugs was doing more harm than good.

“Drugs are still a problem,” he says. “But the safety problem — it’s more like a health and social problem.”

Peter’s brother Tom
Peter’s brother Tom, in a Belgian rehab facility in 2003

After months of research he came to a conclusion: the least worst policy for drugs in Belgium is legalization and regulation of drugs. Soon after he joined LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a police group that questions drug laws around the globe.

Peter also focused on local impacts he could make, and helps run an outreach program for drug addiction at a climbing gym. “In order to stay clean, in order to get your life back on track, you have to have a healthy network to pass your free time.”

He continues, “I know that those guys have a criminal record, I know that some of them relapse. Why can’t I contribute to a project where we believe that constituting a social support network is a way to accomplish a clean, sustainable life? Because that was what my brother didn’t have anymore — the only network he had was a network of users and dealers.”

Peter continues to look for ways to change police culture around drug enforcement. He weighs how he can bring his activism in to police work and help spur changes to further benefit his community. Of course, it helps that he’s in charge.

“That’s the advantage of being a boss,” he says. “I can decide what you are going to do, and we are going to do it.”

Work in Progress story produced by Lily Ames.

Matt Haughey was once kicked out of a jury duty pool for questioning existing drug laws.

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