French Prime Minister Makes U-Turn on Reforming Police Stops

Back at the start of the summer, it looked like the new French government was finally preparing to address an issue that has blighted relations between the country’s police and its minority communities: police identity checks that disproportionately target young people of African and Arab descent. But after a summer of politics and vociferous opposition from France’s powerful police unions, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault seems to be giving up on substantive change, before he has even started.

French regulations currently give the police the authority to stop people and check I.D. cards without reason and without record; research in Paris by the Open Society Justice Initiative in 2009 confirmed what everyone already knew – that young people who are ethnically Arab or African get stopped significantly more than others. Fast forward to this year’s presidential elections: pushed by a coalition of community activists and by the youth wing of his own Socialist Party, Francois Hollande pledged to introduce a proper system for tracking police stops and ensuring an end to endemic ethnic profiling, an issue that helped him gain political support amount young votes and ethnic minorities. After the presidential victory, but immediately prior to key second round assembly elections where voter turn-out in France’s so-called “sensitive zones” was critical, Socialist victory, Ayrault committed himself to testing a system that would include requiring police officers to issue “receipts”, or stop forms, to anyone who is stopped.

“Not so fast,” said the police. Over the following months, the politically powerful police unions repeatedly argued that stop forms would prevent them from doing their work effectively. Earlier this month, Manuel Valls, the minister of the interior, told a gathering of senior police officers that he agreed with them; issuing record slips would be “too bureaucratic and hard to operate”. And on September 27, the prime minister reversed himself, declaring that he had “every confidence in M. Valls, who has convinced me that this is not a good response.”

We and other groups campaigning for increased police accountability have expressed our fears that an important weapon in the battle against ethnic profiling is being dismissed without even being tested. We also believe that the debate has been distorted by the narrow focus on the question of stop forms, which were always envisaged as part of a raft of reforms that would work to change discriminatory practices.

But stop forms have been shown to work. And far from encumbering police work, they can increase its efficiency, by ensuring that police officers are not wasting time on pointless stops of innocent people.

In a pilot project coordinated by Open Society Justice Initiative stop forms were introduced in different locations in Spain, Bulgaria and Hungary. The project results demonstrated that these forms can play an important role in reducing discriminatory police stops while improving police effectiveness. In one of the sites, the Fuenlabrada suburb of Madrid, the rate of successful police stops tripled, during the first three months of the experiment, while the total number of stops decreased significantly.

Stop forms are only part of the solution. They need to be introduced as part of a wider set of steps including dialogue and consultation with minority organizations, training police on the manner they carry out stops, and a change in the legal framework regulating stops, so that police may only stop an individual when there are reasonable grounds of suspicion.

The debate in France is far from over, and the sudden shift in the prime minister’s position has thrust it onto the center stage of French politics. The Young Socialists group has called on the government to honor the party’s campaign promise to reform police stops; the prime minister has left himself open to charges that he is taking the minority vote for granted, by failing to deliver on an explicit commitment that seemed aimed at winning minority votes.

Meanwhile, eight groups involved in the issue, including the Open Society Justice Initiative and Human Rights Watch, have called on the government to ensure a proper consultation with all groups concerned before rushing to a decision.

This kind of broad consultation on policing issues is common in the UK, and in the United States, where there are currently robust public debates on this very same question. Sadly, the Ayrault government is taking a more traditionally conservative approach. But it needs to realize that a “solution” worked out between the interior minister and the police unions will be no kind of a solution at all.

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