“Structural” issues behind the brutality

A video of a music producer being beaten by three police officers in Paris has revived the debate on police brutality in France. While unions say such incidents should be treated as isolated one-offs, others, such as researcher Jacques de Maillard, point to structural problems within the department.

“Unacceptable” images that “embarrass us”: On his Facebook page, French President Emmanuel Macron did not make his words in a post on November 27 condemning the behavior of the police who broke up and furiously insulted Michel Zecler, a 42-year-old black music producer , in his studio in Paris 17th arrondissement (district). Filmed by a CCTV camera and then broadcast by the Loopsider website, “15 minutes of racist beatings and insults” sparked a national outcry and forced the government to act. The police have since been temporary and are now under investigation by the police’s disciplinary body.

The attack on Zecler comes amid growing tensions over police violence. On November 23, police raided protesters, scattered tear gas and chased people out of tents and into the streets while violently clearing a makeshift camp of mostly Afghan migrants in Place de la République. The next day, Parliament voted to move forward with a new security bill that critics worry about making it illegal for journalists or spectators to film cases of police crime.

In an attempt to understand the structural roots of such police abuses, Jowharspoke with Jacques de Maillard, a researcher specializing in police matters and head of the CESDIP (Center for Sociological Research on Law and Penal Institutions).

FRANCE 24: This extremely shocking attack comes at a time when the government is trying to ban the transmission of videos from police officers with the proposed new security law. How do you interpret the timing of these events?

Jacques de Maillard: There is a really tragic irony. This outbreak of violence, which is neither legitimate nor proportionate, once again shows how essential transparency is when it comes to the police. All the more so because the video here allows us to challenge the police’s fake report. This case is particularly shocking and rightly provoked a very strong emotional reaction but it is not an isolated incident. Several videos have been released in 2020 illustrating such cases, including Cédric Chouviat, the supplier who died during a police stop in January; the racist remarks of the police in Seine-Saint-Denis in April; or the excessive violence shown during the evacuation of the migration camp on the Place de la République on 23 November. In addition to the emotional factors and irony of the situation, recurring events such as these highlight a structural problem that cannot be reduced, as the police often say in isolated acts of individuals who must be punished.

Are these violent and racist outbursts related to a recruitment problem within the police force or to the surveillance of officials in the field?

Let us first of all remember that most police operations take place without major problems. However, there are structural problems in terms of recruitment, training, philosophy and management. Our studies show that many choose to join the police for noble reasons: protection of citizens and a taste for action. The department promotes this heroic version of the job, but the reality is far from the myth. Officers in the field sometimes feel as if they are trying to empty the sea with a spoon, without the support of their commanders and under constant criticism from the outside world. The work is exhausting, frustrating and upsetting. This spiral leads some police officers to want to take justice into their own hands, a pattern we often see.

Problems were also identified during recruitment sessions, especially with panels focusing on whether recruitment should be a good colleague, while issues of knowledge and interpersonal skills, which are crucial to the job, were pushed to the background.

Finally, the problems in the Paris region are exacerbated by demographics. Most police come from the provinces and want to return there. At the beginning of their careers, they work in complex neighborhoods that they do not know and where they do not necessarily want to be. This situation generates high staff turnover and staff shortages, especially among local supervisors such as brigades, which strengthens the feeling of disorientation and abandonment among young recruits.

The issue of racism is also an issue: Of course, not all police officers are racist, but their working conditions can lead them to adopt negative stereotypes about minority populations, resulting in discriminatory practices.

Although the institution is extremely hierarchical, police officers carry out many actions and activities on a daily basis without any supervision from their superiors. This leeway can be very positive, but it can also lead to serious abuse.

Is the Minister of the Interior partly responsible for this situation?

The Minister plays a complicated balancing role. He or she must both support the police and insist that they respect the rights of the people. These two demands can be contradictory, as in the case of Gérald Darmanin, whose unqualified support for the police is now returning to him like a boomerang. After saying in July that he “suffocated” when he heard the word “police violence”, how can he deal with these types of scandals today? Especially since his words, just like the government’s attitude, can affect the behavior of the police. By minimizing their responsibility, he aggravates the problem because he gives a negative image of the relationship between the police and the people. Darmanin had to agree with the police because his predecessors were severely criticized by the unions. However, this short-term political strategy will not solve the underlying problems of tension between the police and the people. Today, the challenge is a reorganization; the system must be completely re-evaluated, starting with practice in the field and prioritizing good relations with the public and the proportionate use of force. The police institution needs to do something about the cynicism that is spreading among the police and which sometimes leads to tragedies.

This piece has been translated from the original into French.