The police unit is officially known as a neighborhood support group, a Brigade de Soutien des Quartiers. But on the streets of central Paris, its members used to call themselves the Tigers—and wore a uniform patch showing a pouncing tiger, jaws open, claws extended.
In late February, a packed courtroom in Paris heard what neighborhood support from the Tigers could mean: a young man picked up by the police and repeatedly battered in the local police station, or pushed up against a wall and assaulted; a young woman, just 14 years old, struck with a police baton and sprayed with tear gas.
Four police officers from the unit have been charged with aggravated assault against a minor over these incidents, in an unprecedented case that has brutally exposed the profound problems with France’s approach to policing minority communities.
The charges were brought by prosecutors after a remarkable joint complaint filed by 18 minors and young adults against the Tigers in December 2015. The complaint cited dozens of different incidents of alleged abuse by 11 officers, including sexual assault as well as verbal and physical abuse.
In addition to the charges filed against the four officers now on trial, the complaint also led to the release of disturbing video material shot by police body cameras, showing members of the Tigers in action: patrolling in cars, and routinely pouncing on groups of young people gathered at a square or a street corner, getting them into line for another body search and ID check. In France, they call the process contrôle au faciès—here clearly being used by the Tigers to target people who are “black” or of North African or Arab descent.
Questioned in court about the legal basis for these checks, the police explained that their unit had orders to “oust” young people—decribed in police logs as “undesirables”—from public areas in the neighborhood.
The prosecutor repeatedly asked the plaintiffs why they had not filed a complaint immediately after the events. One of the plaintiffs mumbled, somewhat embarrassed, about his fears of retaliation. His mother, repeatedly asked the same question on the witness stand, described how she wanted to file a complaint on numerous occasions but did not do so because, as her son had told her, “he is the one on the street, not her.”
Apart from the threat of retaliation on the street, there’s little reason for those targeted for stops to trust the system. Time and again, French prosecutors have chosen not to bring charges against police officers accused of abuse against members of minority communities. For the young people who brought the collective complaint, and for many like them across France, getting their case this far is already a remarkable victory over feelings of fear and helplessness.
As for the accused police officers, the responses during both the preliminary investigation and the trial followed something of a pattern: perhaps they had no memory of the events as described; or the alleged acts woud have been impossible; or it was they, the Tigers, who had been the victims of aggression. Their defense lawyer added that the whole collective case was a fiction, invented by community activists.
The deliberations also highlighted the lack of documentation of police stops in France, where the country’s conservative police unions have repeatedly rejected proposals to systematically record body frisks and identity checks. With no official record of a stop, challenging abuses by the police or arguing that the police are disproportionally targeting visible minorities—which is illegal under French law—becomes even more difficult.
It remains to be seen how the judges overseeing the case will rule; their decision won’t be known for some weeks. In the meantime, other challenges to discriminatory stops are continuing, including a case being presented at the European Court of Human Rights by the Open Society Justice Initiative.
But outside the courtrooms, the abuses of the Tigers in central Paris have made brutally clear the human damage caused by bad policing and the widespread use of discriminatory stops. Denying the problem should no longer be an option.