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The video of the music producer beaten by three police officers in Paris once again revives the debate on police abuses in France. While the unions denounce isolated actions that must be punished, others, such as researcher Jacques de Maillard, point to a structural phenomenon within the institution.
Images “unacceptable”, which “make us ashamed”: on his Facebook page, the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron did not mince words, Friday, November 27, to denounce the behavior of the police officers responsible for the beating of Michel Zecler, a 42-year-old black music producer, in his studio at 17e district of Paris. Filmed by a CCTV camera, then broadcast by the Loopsider site, these “15 minutes of racist beatings and insults” aroused a national stir and forced the government to act. If the police officers, suspended since, are now the subject of an investigation by the IGPN, this new case of violence among the police forces relaunches the recurring debate on police abuses in France. To try to understand the structural causes, France 24 spoke with Jacques de Maillard, researcher specializing in police issues and director of Cesdip (Center for Sociological Research on Law and Criminal Institutions).
France 24 : This extremely shocking attack takes place even as the government tries to ban the dissemination of videos of serving police officers through the “Comprehensive Security” law. How do you analyze the timing of these events ?
Jacques de Maillard : The situation is absolutely tragic irony. This surge of violence, which is neither legitimate nor proportionate, shows once again how essential it is to make police actions visible. Especially since the video here allows to confuse the false report of the police. While this case is particularly shocking and rightly arouses a very strong emotional reaction, it is nevertheless not an isolated case. In the year 2020, we already have several media sequences linked to this kind of business with the death of Cédric Chouviat, the delivery man who died during a check in January, the racist remarks of the police officers of Seine-Saint-Denis in April , or even the overflows during the evacuation of the migrant camp at Place de la République on 23 November. Beyond the emotional factor and the irony of the situation, the succession of events of this type highlights a structural problem which cannot be limited, as we often hear from the police side, to facts isolated from individuals who must be sanctioned.
Are this type of violent and racist outbursts linked to a problem of recruitment within the police, or of the supervision of officers in the field? ?
First of all, it should be remembered that most police interventions take place without major problems. However, there are structural problems at the level of recruitment, training, doctrine and management. Our studies show that many people choose to join the police for noble reasons: the protection of citizens and a taste for action. The institution values this heroic version of the profession, yet reality is very far from fantasy. In the field, they sometimes have the impression of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon, without support from the hierarchy and under constant criticism from the outside world. Work generates wear and tear, frustration and resentment. This spiral leads some police officers to want to take justice into their own hands, a pattern frequently observed.
Problems were also identified during the recruitment sessions, in particular with juries which sought above all to know whether the recruit would be a good colleague, while the questions of know-how and know-how, however absolutely crucial to the exercise of the profession, were relegated to the background.
Finally, the Paris region concentrates the problems for demographic reasons. Most of the police come from the provinces and wish to return. At the start of their career, they find themselves concentrated in complicated areas that they do not know and where they do not necessarily want to work. This situation generates a high turnover of personnel and a shortage of staff, particularly among local supervisors such as crossing guards, reinforcing the feeling of loss of reference points and abandonment of young recruits.
The issue of racism is also an issue: not all police officers are racist, of course, but their conditions of intervention can lead them to adopt negative stereotypes about minority populations, which can lead to discriminatory practices.
Although the institution is extremely hierarchical, the police officers exercise many actions and gestures on a daily basis without the control of their hierarchy. This room for maneuver can be very positive and lead to serious abuses.
Is the Minister of the Interior partially responsible for this situation?
The minister plays a complicated balancing act. It must both support the police and demand that they respect the rights of citizens. However, these two demands can become contradictory, as for Gérald Darmanin, whose unqualified support for the police institution is now coming back in the face like a boomerang. After having said in July that he “choked” when he heard the word “police violence”, how can he manage this type of scandals today? Especially since his speech, like the direction of the government, can have an effect on the conduct of police officers. By minimizing their responsibilities, it aggravates the problem, as it conveys a negative image of the relationship that the police and the public must maintain. Gérald Darmanin had to reconcile with the police because his predecessor [Christophe Castaner, NLDR] had been heavily criticized by the unions. However, this short-term political strategy cannot resolve the underlying problems of the unease between the police and the population. Today, there is an issue of collective reorganization; We need to rethink the system in depth, starting from field practices, with the quality of the relationship with the citizen and the proportionate use of force as a priority. The institution must regain control to combat this cynicism which is winning over the police and sometimes leading to tragedies.