French minister rages against Copwatch website

France’s interior minister has lodged a legal complaint against a website that publishes photographs and video footage of police officers with the declared aim of "monitoring those who repress us".


Interior Minister Claude Gueant has filed a legal motion to block a new police-monitoring website that has enraged law-enforcement officers in France. Gueant took specific aim at the site’s database, which reveals the names, photos – and sometimes political affiliations – of around 450 policemen from the regions of Paris, Calais and Lille.

In a statement published on Friday, the interior minister said the online publication of policemen’s names, photos and sometimes addresses “harms the personnel of the interior ministry and jeopardizes their and their families’ safety". His view was strongly echoed by the National Police Alliance (APN), a right-wing police union that also decried the “anti-cop initiative” as "hateful and slanderous".

According to the APN union, the information disclosed by the Copwatch Nord IDF website goes too far. Besides publishing photos of policemen – often in plainclothes during protests – it also shows them engaging in what could be inappropriate behaviour and excessive use of force.

Under the title “the police kick back in the barracks” the website includes shots of police drinking what appears to be alcoholic beverages. Names of police stations and descriptions of muscled arrests also figure prominently on the site.

Copwatch Nord IDF said it used the Internet and new technologies, like smart phones, to document police abuse and based its work on existing police-monitoring sites in the United States, Canada and England.

Gueant had already filed two defamation complaints against the website before Friday’s request to shut it down. The website, which appeared earlier in the same week, was not immediately taken offline. It's authors told French media that the site was hosted on servers in the US, and French authorities would struggle to censure it.

The legacy of Rodney King

While its stated aim is to “monitor those who repress us", Copwatch Nord IDF also accuses law-enforcement personnel on all levels of discriminating against immigrants and using gratuitous violence. The group behind the online project says it is made up of “vigilant citizens”.

The website’s creators said they obtained their information by viewing footage from surveillance cameras taken during protests and by rummaging online social networks like Facebook.

One anonymous member of the group told France Info radio on Friday he had even “managed to become friends with policemen” via Facebook. He said the work of collecting information was conducted for several years to verify it before publishing.

"By informing people we are doing preventive work that can perhaps help some people avoid arrest or allow others to identity a police officer in order to file a complaint," the activist said. He added that the only limit the group established for itself was displaying policemen’s family members.

The website draws from the experience of similar initiatives that emerged in the United States after the highly publicised case of Rodney King. In March 1991, King, a young black man from Los Angeles, was violently subdued by police officers. The incident was caught on camera and the images, relayed by the media, contributed to the outbreak of race riots in Los Angeles in 1992.

The website at the centre of the controversy is not the first of its kind in France either. The first initiative appeared on the alternative news website “Paris-indymedia” in December.

At the time dozens of photos of plainclothes police were posted online, provoking the indignation of Gueant’s predecessor. A few days later, the pictures disappeared from the site.

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