Enforcing order: Urban policing in a volatile city
Six months before the events at the end of 2005, certain incidents in one of the reputedly problematic neighborhoods in the town seemed to me richly informative about the sequence of events that could lead to what the police unions later described as a “riot,” but which a French engineer living in the neighborhood compared to a “ratonnade,” that is, a form of ethnic cleansing against Arabs.
I had accompanied uniformed officers on foot patrol or in marked vehicles several times in this neighborhood, made up of two- or three-story blocks, pleasingly designed, set amid green spaces. The contrast between its peaceful appearance and its bad reputation was remarkable.
A resident, a member of a small Jesuit community, told me of the patient efforts of the tenants’ association to induce respect for the environment and improve relations within the community: graffiti had disappeared from the walls, the acts of petty vandalism had diminished, a block party had just been held in the park adjacent to the apartments, donations had been collected from residents to fund a weekend by the sea for a group of teenagers. But the social reality as he described it was far from idyllic: unemployment was high among the youth, and everyone knew that drugs were being dealt.
As to the relationship between the local population and law enforcement, it was consistently deteriorating. There were constant stops and frisks, always targeting the same young men, which had no effect on illegal activities but raised tensions. When a resident called the police about a mundane problem such as a noisy gathering in a square, the response was so brutal and, ultimately, counterproductive that most had given up making complaints.
“The atmosphere between residents and the police has become horrible,” my informant concluded. I recognized this myself as I accompanied officers in the afternoon and evening, and witnessed their interactions with young people during checks and searches. The aggressive attitude and scorn of the law enforcement agents was met with hostile silence and mute rage.
In this tense atmosphere, a resident called the police one evening in May to complain of an all-terrain vehicle being driven in the adjacent park and causing noise pollution. Three uniformed officers turned up to stop the young driver, who attempted to flee but fell off his quad bike, without hurting himself. The accident allowed the police to catch him and bring him under control. Seeing their friend in difficulty, a dozen teenagers who were in the vicinity rushed to his rescue and formed a threatening circle around the officers, who, outnumbered by their opponents, had to retreat and call for reinforcements.
Once alerted, all the uniformed and anticrime squad patrols active that night swiftly arrived, overrunning the project as they searched for suspects. The police deployment was striking and brutal. On that spring evening, many children were at the playground, the youngest under the watchful gaze of their parents. In the ensuing disorder, a number were pushed. One officer, aiming to intimidate a nine-year-old he had judged insolent, put the barrel of his Flash-Ball to the boy ’ s head. A mother who tried to shield her children was questioned aggressively. Horrified residents looked out of their windows as the police stormed the neighborhood paths and the stairways of the buildings. The door to the apartment where the family of one of the suspects lived was broken down, the furniture
overturned and several persons hurt, including the teenage sister of the young man being sought. She was doing her homework, and, as she came out of her room at the wrong moment, she was roughed up, ending the night in the hospital with a broken arm and a neck injury. Her brother – a well-known drug dealer – was finally arrested but released a few hours later, when the police realized he was blind and could not therefore have been involved in the initial altercation.
The Alliance police union, known to be close to the right-wing government, spoke of “attacks of indescribable savagery” against the police, making reference to officers “set on and seriously injured.”
The Human Rights League (Ligue des droits de l’homme) local representatives wrote to the state prosecutor denouncing “racist and sexist insults that particularly shocked the local residents because death threats were added.” The following day, the town hall organized a meeting with residents’ representatives, who condemned ‘the disproportion between the incidents and the police response, and the stigmatization of non-French residents,” while the mayor met the commissioner to discuss with him the “vicious spiral” of violence on both sides, the “gulf between law enforcement agents and inhabitants,” and his “anxiety as to whether the police have the will to protect local residents’ safety.”
When I discussed these incidents with the mayor, he said he was shocked by the brutality of the operation, which had affected all residents indiscriminately. Later I met one of the leaders of the tenants’ association, who told me that such incidents wiped out months of patient efforts to improve life in the neighborhood, and even led residents to see criminals as victims. The commissioner, for his part, protested that once again the police were being blamed. He criticized the mayor, whom he suspected of playing politics with the affair, and accused the tenants’ association of adding fuel to the flames. He could not imagine the former, as head of the municipal police, and the latter, which in its own way was committed to maintaining order, as allies. He regarded them as adversaries with whom it was necessary to compromise, but certainly not collaborate.
The officers I spoke to during the following days admitted that the serious injuries evoked by the union amounted to one of the three who had chased the driver of the all-terrain vehicle spraining his ankle.
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