Outrage over high-profile cases of police brutality has revived talk of a culture of impunity in French law enforcement and increased scrutiny of the country’s police watchdog, IGPN, which critics say is hampered by a lack of independence.
In June this year, at the height of protests against violence and racism by the police, France’s outgoing human rights ombudsman sounded the alarm over a “crisis of public confidence in the security forces” in a comprehensive report that allowed me to read ugly.
In a firing squad after five years in the job, Jacques Toubon called for a reversal of what he described as a “fighting mentality” that has driven a wedge between police and the public. He condemned a culture of impunity in the army and lamented the lack of responsibility in French law enforcement.
Long-standing complaints about French police work have recurred in recent weeks following a series of high-profile incidents and an extremely controversial government proposal that critics say will make it more difficult to document cases of police abuse.
The events, which included the brutal cleansing of a migrating camp in Paris and the battle of black music producer Michel Zecler, have heightened scrutiny by the Inspection générale de la police nationale (IGPN), the police’s widely criticized internal disciplinary body.
In the midst of a fierce backlash that has seen tens of thousands of rallies in cities across the country demanding greater police responsibility, members of the government – including the harsh interior minister, Gérald Darmanin – have been forced to admit shortcomings in the IGPN and explore ways to reform police watchdogs.
Responsible for the top man
According to Mathieu Zagrodzki, a researcher at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin, IGPN’s problems stem in large part from a simultaneous deficit of independence and public confidence.
“There is a widespread suspicion that the agency is not conducting its investigations as carefully and diligently as it should,” Zagrodzki explained in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“As a result, there is a lack of public confidence in the watchdog,” he added. “A lot of people don’t even care to complain to IGPN because they think it’s pointless.”
In cases of police brutality, IGPN is routinely accused of trivializing facts and taking part in the police. Critics point to a flawed structure that in itself creates bias. The head of the agency is appointed directly by – and is responsible to – the Minister of the Interior, often referred to as the “premier flic de France” (the top man).
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It is not just the leadership that is being accused of bias. The entire agency consists largely of police officers. In 2019, they accounted for 72 percent of the 285 employees.
“You basically have cops investigating other officials: That’s why people are suspicious of IGPN, because they feel that abuses are solved privately,” said Jean-Michel Schlosser, a sociologist at the University of Reims who previously served in the police force. FRANCE 24.
Brigitte Jullien, the current head of IGPN, has strongly rejected criticism of her agency, describing it as an “insult to the ethics and professionalism of her colleagues”. In June, days after the publication of Toubon’s report, she assured that the disciplinary body “feared all the officers in France”.
“All professions, whether lawyers, doctors or journalists, have internal control mechanisms, and they are never criticized,” Jullien told French media, claiming that her agency is no less independent than others.
‘No power to punish’
IGPN was founded more than a century ago and performs a number of tasks with limited powers and resources. It inspects the police, evaluates practices and rules for engagement and investigates complaints of abuse.
As Schlosser said, “it can give recommendations, but has no power to punish.”
IGPN investigations are either administrative or judicial. Administrative investigations can be requested by the national police chief, the interior minister or the head of department (the local police chief). In legal investigations, on the other hand, the Office may act on its own initiative or at the request of prosecutors and judges.
Ordinary citizens can also request disciplinary action through an online platform, even if they are not obliged to act on their complaints.
The problem, says Schlosser, is that IGPN’s powers are strictly limited during administrative investigations.
“It can do little more than force officers to appear for questioning, which often results in a very incomplete investigation,” the sociologist explains. “On the other hand, legal investigations offer IGPN much greater latitude. For example, it can issue search options and is only liable to a judge. ”
According to its latest annual report, the Police Inspectorate completed 1332 legal investigations in 2019. A further 238 administrative investigations were carried out, which led to 276 “sanction proposals”. While the report does not specify how many of these “proposals” actually led to penalties, it notes that IGPN-recommended sanctions accounted for only 16 percent of all sentences imposed by the police.
A French exception
As critics are quick to point out, the French police guard is very different from their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, both in its composition and its missions.
Sebastien Roché, a political analyst and police expert, compared the French model to practices in countries such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.
In these countries, Roché told the French weekly Télérama, “[T]the first thing the authorities did was to appoint a judge – not a police officer – as the head of their police watchdogs. ”
Schlosser noted that police watchdogs in such countries are led by independent people, who are often appointed by local lawmakers. They act as independent administrative authorities and are not responsible to the Ministry of the Interior.
“In addition, their investigators are not police officers but usually legal experts and judges,” Schlosser added. “Police officers are present in an advisory capacity, based on their knowledge of their job.”
He pointed to the case of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), in England and Wales, as symbolic of this culture of independence. The director of the IOPC is required by law to have never worked for the police. Its investigative units are mixed, including pensioners – who never make up more than a quarter of the staff – and legal experts.
“The advantage of such a system is that you get a comprehensive understanding of situations,” says Zagrodzki. “On the one hand, there are the police who know the system and are familiar with procedural issues. And on the other hand, you get the perspective from the outside. In this way, an act that may seem proportionate to officers can be flagged as socially unacceptable in a democracy. ”
Greater autonomy … within the Ministry of the Interior
In its latest 12-month report, related to 2018-19, the IOPC registered a total of 31,097 complaints from the public – more than three times the number registered by the French IGPN during the same period. This is a significant discrepancy for countries with comparable population sizes, one that experts attribute to different cultures of interaction with the public.
“British police are no more violent than their French counterparts,” Zagrodzki said. “The difference is that there is much greater confidence in the department [in England and Wales], which means that people are more likely to file complaints. ”
He says the appointment of an independent head of the IGPN – an idea recently developed by French Prime Minister Jean Castex – would mark a step in the right direction, although it would not be enough to change the culture of the French watchdog.
“Just changing the leadership will not change the structure of the agency, although it can improve its image and encourage people to move forward with their complaints,” he explains.
For significant change, Zagrodzky added, the entire IGPN would need to become an independent body – a move that the French government is unlikely to pursue.
Challenged on the subject in an interview last week, President Emmanuel Macron advocated “greater transparency” in investigations and more room for the IGPN to punish mistreatment.
However, he remained vague on the subject of the watchdog’s institutional independence, suggesting that it should remain closely linked to police authorities and its supervisor, “top man” Darmanin.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.