Under pressure from police, France backs off chokehold ban

Under pressure from police, the French government backed away Monday from a ban on chokeholds during arrests. It came days after French authorities announced stun guns, which caused a fatal police killing in Atlanta, would be tested for wider use.

File photo of French police officers protesting in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on June 14, 2020.
File photo of French police officers protesting in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on June 14, 2020. AFP - THOMAS SAMSON

Last week, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced the government would ban the use of chokeholds following protests over French police brutality and racial injustice unleashed by George Floyd’s death in the US.

The protests in France were focused on the 2016 death of Adama Traoré, who died in police custody.

But French police responded with five straight days of counterprotests, arguing that the ban deprived them of a key tool to subdue unruly suspects. They also bristled at being compared to police in the US, or painted as white supremacists.

On Monday, the national police director sent a letter to staff, obtained by The Associated Press, saying chokeholds will no longer be taught in police schools but they can continue to be used “with discernment” until alternatives are found.

Police unions hailed the reversal.

Activists and some lawmakers have long lobbied for French police to abandon violent techniques blamed for injury and possible death, such as chokeholds and pressing on a prone suspect’s chest.

The French government has also promised that more police officers will be equipped with body cameras to help ensure that identity checks don’t lead to excessive violence or discrimination against minority groups.

Researchers have documented racial profiling by French police, and investigations were opened recently into racist comments on private Facebook and Whatsapp groups for police officers.

Tens of thousands of people have marched or rallied around France over the past two weeks against police brutality and discrimination.

Stun gun tests in France hours after Atlanta police killing

Last week, French authorities also announced it would test stun guns for wider use, adding to the ranks of European law enforcement agencies that have recently adopted the weapon.

In Atlanta, just hours after the French stun gun announcement on Friday, a seemingly routine sobriety check outside a Wendy’s restaurant ended in gunshots after Rayshard Brooks grabbed a Taser from officers and ran.

The killing of the 27-year-old black man in an encounter with two white officers late Friday rekindled fiery protests in Atlanta and prompted the police chief’s resignation. One of the officers was dismissed.

Axon, the company that makes Tasers, has made a big push outside the United States in recent years and agencies in the Netherlands and Italy recently expanded use of stun guns, following the path of Britain, where use has increased steadily since they were introduced in 2003.

Stun guns are in limited but increasing use in France already. The number of discharges increased from 1,400 in 2017 to 2,349 in 2019. According to the French police oversight agency, stun guns killed one person last year and three suffered severe injuries.

Increasing stun gun use in Britain, Netherlands

Police in England and Wales discharged Tasers 2,700 times over the 12 months ending in March 2019, according to government statistics, which also showed black people were more likely than white ones to have stun guns used on them.

Britain's Independent Office for Police Conduct said last month that there were growing concerns “about its disproportionate use against black men and those with mental health issues.”

British rapper Wretch 32 posted video last week of his 62-year-old father being hit by a Taser in his London home during a police raid in April. The Metropolitan Police force said a review found no indication of misconduct, but London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for an urgent investigation.

According to Amnesty International, at least 18 people in Britain have died after a stun gun was discharged on them by police, but in many cases it was not determined that the weapon caused the death. The human rights group has said at least 500 people died after being hit by stun guns between 2001 and 2012 in the United States.

Italy’s government approved using Tasers in January after a two-year trial and opened a bidding process to purchase nearly 4,500 stun guns to be divided among various law enforcement agencies. Police chief Franco Gabrielli said in March that the next phase would involve a period of training and “operational experimentation” in a half-dozen cities.

“The security of our personnel is first, obviously without causing damage to the people who might find themselves on the other side,” Gabrielli said outside a Genoa hospital where he had gone to visit two police officers injured in a shootout.

The Netherlands began issuing stun guns to police in 2017 and is training 17,000 of the force’s 40,000 officers. But far fewer of the weapons are on order and they will not be part of an officer’s standard equipment.

There are about 15,000 stun guns in France, which has a total police and gendarme force of around 240,000. In the US, by contrast, more than three-quarters of officers carry the weapons as standard issue, according to William Terrill, a professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University. Axon says it has standing relationships with 95 percent of American law enforcement agencies.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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