‘A lack of public trust’: France mulls reform of country’s police watchdog

Police officers drag a man on the ground during a protest against government plans to give the police wider powers in Paris on November 28, 2020.
Police officers drag a man on the ground during a protest against government plans to give the police wider powers in Paris on November 28, 2020. © Ameer Al-Halbi, AFP

Outrage over high-profile cases of police brutality has revived talk of a culture of impunity in French law enforcement and heightened scrutiny of the country’s police watchdog, the IGPN, which critics say is hamstrung by a lack of independence.

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In June of this year, at the height of protests against violence and racism in the police, France’s outgoing human rights ombudsman raised the alarm over a "crisis of public confidence in the security forces" in a wide-ranging report that made for grim reading.

In a parting shot after five years in the job, Jacques Toubon urged a reversal of what he described as a “warring mentality” that has driven a wedge between the police and the public. He denounced a culture of impunity in the force, lamenting the lack of accountability in French law enforcement.

Long-standing grievances over French policing returned to the fore in recent weeks following a string of high-profile incidents and a hugely controversial government proposal that critics say will make it more difficult to document cases of police abuse.

The incidents, which included the brutal clearing of a migrant camp in Paris and the beating of Black music producer Michel Zecler, have heightened scrutiny of the Inspection générale de la police nationale (IGPN), the police’s widely criticised internal disciplinary body.  

Amid a fierce backlash that has seen tens of thousands rally in cities across the country calling for greater police accountability, government members – including the hardline interior minister, Gérald Darmanin – have been forced to concede shortcomings in the IGPN and examine ways to reform the police watchdog.

Accountable to the top cop

According to Mathieu Zagrodzki, a researcher at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin, the IGPN’s problems stem largely from a concurrent deficit of independence and public trust.

“There’s widespread suspicion that the agency does not carry out its investigations as thoroughly and diligently as it should,” Zagrodzki explained in an interview with FRANCE 24. 

“As a result, there’s a lack of public trust in the watchdog,” he added. “A lot of people don’t even bother complaining to the IGPN because they figure it is pointless.”

When it comes to cases of police brutality, the IGPN is routinely accused of downplaying the facts and siding with the police. Critics point to a flawed structure that inherently creates bias. The agency’s head is directly appointed by – and accountable to – the interior minister, who is frequently referred to as the “premier flic de France” (the top cop).

>> Racism, sex abuse and impunity: French police’s toxic legacy in the suburbs

It’s not just the leadership that is exposed to accusations of bias. The entire agency is largely composed of police officers. In 2019, they accounted for 72 percent of its 285 staff members.

“You essentially have police officers investigating other officers: That’s why people are suspicious of the IGPN, because they sense that abuses are settled in private,” Jean-Michel Schlosser, a sociologist at the University of Reims who formerly served in the police, told FRANCE 24.

Brigitte Jullien, the current head of the IGPN, has vehemently rejected criticism of her agency, describing it as an “insult to the ethics and professionalism” of her colleagues. In June, days after the release of Toubon’s report, she assured that the disciplinary body was “dreaded by all officers in France”.

“All professions, whether lawyers, doctors or journalists, have internal control mechanisms, and they never get criticised,” Jullien told French media, claiming that her agency is no less independent than others.

‘No power to punish’

Founded more than a century ago, the IGPN performs a number of duties with limited powers and resources. It inspects police services, evaluates practices and rules of engagement, and investigates complaints of abuse. 

As Schlosser said, “it can make recommendations, but does not have the power to punish.” 

IGPN investigations are either administrative or judicial. Administrative inquiries can be requested by the national police chief, the interior minister or the prefect (the local head of police). In judicial investigations, on the other hand, the agency can act on its own initiative or at the request of prosecutors and magistrates. 

Ordinary citizens can also petition the disciplinary body via an online platform, though it is not obliged to act upon their complaints. 

The trouble, said Schlosser, is that the IGPN’s powers are strictly curtailed during administrative inquiries. 

“It can do little more than oblige officers to face questioning, which often results in a highly incomplete investigation,” the sociologist explains. “In contrast, judicial inquiries offer the IGPN much greater latitude. It can issue search warrants, for instance, and is only accountable to a magistrate.”

According to its latest annual report, the police inspectorate completed 1,322 judicial investigations in 2019. A further 238 administrative inquiries were carried out, leading to 276 “sanction proposals”. While the report does not specify how many of those “proposals” actually led to penalties, it notes that IGPN-recommended sanctions accounted for just 16 percent of all punishments meted out by the police. 

A French exception

As critics are quick to point out, France’s police watchdog differs considerably from its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, both in its composition and its assignments.

Sebastien Roché, a political analyst and police expert, compared the French model with the practice in countries including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. 

In those countries, Roché told French weekly Télérama, “[T]he first thing the authorities did was to appoint a magistrate – not a police officer – to head their police watchdogs.”

Schlosser noted that police watchdogs in such countries are headed by independent figures, who are often appointed by local legislatures. They operate as independent administrative authorities and are not answerable to the interior ministry. 

“Furthermore, their investigators are not police officers, but most often legal experts and magistrates,” Schlosser added. “Police officers are present in a consultative capacity, based on their knowledge of their job.”

He pointed to the case of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), in England and Wales, as emblematic of this culture of independence. The IOPC’s director is legally required to have never worked for the police. Its investigative units are mixed, including retired officers – who never make up more than a quarter of staff – and legal experts.

“The advantage with such a system is that you get a comprehensive understanding of situations,” said Zagrodzki. “On the one hand, there’s the police officer who knows the system and is familiar with procedural matters. And on the other, you get the perspective from the outside. That way, an action that may seem proportionate to officers can be flagged as socially unacceptable in a democracy.”

Greater autonomy ... within the interior ministry

In its most recent 12-month report, relating to 2018-19, the IOPC registered a total of 31,097 complaints from members of the public – more than three times the number recorded by France’s IGPN over the same period. It’s a significant discrepancy for countries with comparable population sizes, one that experts attribute to different cultures of interaction with the public. 

“UK police officers are no more violent than their French counterparts,” Zagrodzki observes. “The difference is that there is far greater trust in the institution [in England and Wales], meaning people are more inclined to file complaints.”

He says appointing an independent head of the IGPN – an idea recently mooted by French Prime Minister Jean Castex – would mark a step in the right direction, though it would not be enough to change the culture of the French watchdog.

“Changing the leadership alone will not alter the structure of the agency, even though it could improve its image and encourage people to step forward with their complaints,” he explains.

For substantive change to take place, Zagrodzky added, the entire IGPN would need to become an independent body – a move the French government is unlikely to push for.

Challenged on the subject in an interview last week, President Emmanuel Macron advocated “greater transparency” in investigations and more scope for the IGPN to penalise malpractice. 

However, he remained vague on the subject of the watchdog’s institutional independence, suggesting it should remain closely linked to police authorities and its tutelary minister, “top cop” Darmanin.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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