Sunday, June 3, 2012

More on Identity Checks

Yesterday, I linked to an important post by Arun Kapil on identity checks in France. This started a lively discussion in the comments section, which prompted Arun to add to his original post. I'd now like to add a few comments of my own. Constitutional rights do not enforce themselves. The state's attitude is crucial. What prompted Arun's post in the first place was an apparent change in the attitude of the French state: the new interior minister announced that police will henceforth required to justify identify checks and supply receipts to people who are stopped for controls. The old minister, Claude Guéant, immediately responded that he thought this was a bad idea, because one can trust the police to distinguish between someone who "looks like a dealer" and someone who doesn't (as if everyone stopped by the police had that "look," and as if such a bald assertion would be quietly accepted by the population at large). And a cop accuses the Socialists of "angélisme" and adds that "in the station houses, police are snickering."

Now, it's quite true that abusive identity checks are common in the United States as well as in France. Everyone knows about "stop and frisk" procedures in certain neighborhoods, "special regimes" in states that border on Mexico or have large immigrant populations, anti-gang laws in cities like Los Angeles that give police broad license to do as they please, and the use of minor infractions such as a broken taillight to stop suspects guilty of "driving while black" or "driving while young" (in years long past I myself was subjected to this kind of stop on the New Jersey Turnpike for driving with long hair). And if one's taillight doesn't happen to be broken, it can always be broken after the fact.

But there is a difference between the behavior of the police in the US and the police in France. The French police seem to make a point of conducting checks in very public places: in railroad and Metro stations, on busy streets, etc. And often they go out of their way to make it clear that there is no particular reason for the check. It has always seemed to me that there was a reason for this publicity: the police wanted their action to be visible, they intended to assert that, even if they might not have the right to do what they were doing, they had the authority, since no one would or could stop them. No court would hear any complaint against them. No public official would dare chastise them. And indeed, few citizens would dare to protest, because everyone recognized the futility of doing so. In the US, these practices continue in certain neighborhoods, whose residents know, similarly, that protest from them would be futile or impractical. But outside of those areas, there are people who could and would protest if the police made a spectacle of their high-handed behavior. In France, the police have the upper hand and do not shrink from showing it.

Will that now change? Who knows? A ministerial decree can be combated on the ground in many ways. A warning has been given, but the struggle for enforcement has only just begun.


FrédéricLN said...

Agree in full. I stood for this new policy. As a citizen of Argenteuil, I don't understand any valuable reason for this attitude of policemen. But I have to add I did not meet such attitudes since 1-2 years. It may depend on the neighbourhood, on the time when I take trains, etc. (other inhabitants told be it was worse now than before).

There are sociological explanations for policemen having this attitude; basically, THEY are afraid, because they come from the countryside, they don't understand poorer urban neighbourhoods, they get no training for that, and they just wish to leave them as fast as possible.

Anonymous said...

Based on a Médiapart article, there was a session with Spanish police officers who were similarly displeased when the law was passed and are now fine with it.
The article is not free access but if you subscribe, it's well worth the read.

Louis said...

I couldn't resist, sorry.

Vintagemaison said...

I live in rural France. We are always getting stopped.

My grey-haired, middle-aged husband was stopped and breathalysed THREE times in the space of ten minutes whilst driving around our local village, shopping, doing chores. He was stopped and about to be re-done again, when the sergeant recognized him and waved him on.

We were stopped one afternoon with my elderly mother and kids in the car by some really nasty national police carrying what looked like little machine guns. What on earth they were doing stopping people like us - we hardly look like drug dealers nor gun-runners. Actually, they were getting on a bit too, definitely middle-aged and I was just hoping that in the excitement, none of them would cough or have a funny turn and shoot us all.

My son used to carry a photocopy of his Brisih passport as he is often stopped, being a student. A gendarme said a copy wasn't good enough, but son explained that his mother wouldn't let him have the original as it was worth over €2000 on the black-market, and the copper just nodded and said, 'OK laddie, but just watch it'

A couple of months ago, they even set up a roadblock in our village - a total of about 50 houses - just outside our gate. they even stopped the Maire - they apparently didn't even know who he was! there are only 3 or 4 houses with children and the rest of the population are pensioners and us.

It is really getting beyond a joke and I am sick of it.

Rant over.