A courthouse was the chosen spot for protesters to gather, and a black banner was promptly tied between two posts. In yellow the words screamed, “The Police Kill, the Justice Department Acquits.” One man put “Let’s Disarm the Police” stickers across an overpass. Three activists unfurled a sign reading, “We will not forget,” while the trucks and cars passing underneath beeped their horns.
It might be a scene from Ferguson or Baltimore after aggressive police tactics turned deadly, rocking both cities. But this is Bobigny, a suburb of Paris, where protesters gathered after a judge on Monday acquitted two police officers of their role in two teens' deaths in 2005. The pair died after being chased into an electrical substation by the police, sparking monumental riots and changing perceptions of equality and segregation across France.
French cops pale in comparison to their American counterparts in terms of killings – US police kill roughly 40 times more perpetrators, suspects, and innocent victims. But here in France, even without rampant gun violence, officers suffer similar image problems, accused of racial profiling, authoritarian behavior, and above all, being above the law. And the much-awaited decision by the French court has served to reinforce those perceptions.
“They didn’t kill them exactly, but they let them die. It is not exactly the role of a policeman,” says Jean-Yves Losage, a print factory worker and social activist in Bobigny after the ruling was handed out. “The racism in the US and police brutality is higher but here it is the same system.”
The two teens were part of a pack of youths in the troubled banlieue outside Paris Clichy-sous-Bois ten years ago. Though they had done nothing wrong, they ran from cops – the first indicator of troubled relations between residents who live in urban outskirts and law enforcement in France. The police pursued, and three of the teens fled over a 13-foot wall into an electrical substation. Bouna Traoré, who was 15, and Zyed Benna who was 17, both died from electrocution. The third was seriously burned.
The teens' deaths sparked three weeks of riots, during which thousands of cars were torched and public buildings burned. And the state of emergency brought into the national consciousness the segregation and inequality that marks major cities in France and their outer suburbs.
Family members of the boys had fought for nearly a decade to have the cops put on trial, for not helping them avoid danger. One of the cops had said into his police radio, according to the Associated Press, “If they enter the site, I wouldn’t pay much for their skins.”
But the state prosecution refused three times. Finally France’s highest court ruled in favor of a trial. “If the kids had been from rich areas, it would not have taken ten years,” says Farah, a school teacher in a nearby neighborhood who declined to give her last name and says she came out in solidarity with the families of the victims.
The two cops were ultimately charged with not assisting someone in danger, for which each could have faced five years in prison. But the judge ruled Monday that the officers didn’t have a "clear awareness of grave and imminent danger” facing the adolescents.
A troubled relationship
During the proceedings, the judge tried to keep the focus on the case at hand, saying it wasn't a referendum on the national police.
But the decision reinforces the notion among many that impunity for the police is rampant. In France it is mostly migrant communities feel they are unfairly targeted. Their racial backgrounds are a mix, ranging from family origins in sub-Saharan Africa to Morocco and Algeria. Many of them are Muslims.
Activists called for protests across the country yesterday. Some braced for renewed racial and ethnic tension, at a time where Muslims are already feeling scapegoated and mistrusted in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish grocery store shootings in Paris in January.
The claims of police excess are hard to back up, as statistics are notoriously sketchy in France – in large part because they aren't made public, says Rene Levy, the director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research and the Sociological Research Center on Law and Criminal Justice Institutions.
In 2009, Amnesty International compiled a report showing that of 639 inquiries about police mistreatment in 2006, in only 8 cases was an officer dismissed. And various nongovernmental organizations have compiled data on police killings, based largely on press coverage of incidents. Their figures show about an average of 12 deaths a year. One group, A Toutes les Victimes (To All the Victims), has tallied 103 deaths in the past decade.
The FBI reported that the justifiable homicides by American police officers reached 461 in 2013, the latest year available. Other databases put that number much higher, at over 1,000. The French figures are in line with many other European countries, where officers rarely use their guns.
'They say there is no problem'
But France rates lower than its European peers such as Britain or Germany in terms of police trust among the citizenry, says Mr. Levy. And France's hierarchical police structure – primarily a national force that deploys officers where they are needed, not where they live – induces a more authoritarian approach. He also says that identity checks are overly used, compared to Germany, for example, and that racial profiling is rampant.
“The style of policing that is being implemented in the country is a somewhat aggressive style,” he says. “The French police are not predominantly preoccupied with their relationship to the people but their relationship to the state.”
And that shows. French minorities say they have no trust in the police – and that ten years after this incident and the riots that ensued, the situation is worse, not better.
“My message is 'justice, please do your job,'” says Abdourahmane Camara, whose little brother was killed in December by police gunshot wounds in Le Havre. He joined the family group "Emergency, Our Police Kill," and traveled to Paris to feel closer to the families in this case.
Moroccan-born Farid El Yamni, an engineer whose brother died in 2012, says that police brutality overall, and a lack of accountability, are the key issues. His brother was killed at the hands of cops, he says, and he shows photos of his brother's bruising to prove it. Officially the police say his brother died of a drug overdose.
“The difference between France and the US is that the US admits there is a problem," says Mr. El Yamni. "In France, they say there is no problem.”