French police are using overly broad powers to conduct unwarranted and abusive identity checks on black and Arab young men and boys, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 55-page report, “The Root of Humiliation: Abusive Identity Checks in France,” says that minority youth, including children as young as 13, are subjected to frequent stops involving lengthy questioning, invasive body pat-downs, and the search of personal belongings. These arbitrary stops can take place even in the absence of any indication of wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch found. Insulting language, including racial slurs, are not uncommon, and some stops involve excessive use of force by the police.
“It’s shocking that young black and Arab kids can be, and are, arbitrarily forced up against walls and manhandled by the police with no real evidence of wrongdoing,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But if you are a young person in some neighborhoods in France, it’s a part of life.”
The report draws on dozens of interviews with French citizens belonging to minority groups, including 31 children, in Paris, Lyon, and Lille.
Under French law, police have wide discretion to carry out identity checks without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, including in transport hubs and in any area designated by a prosecutor. The stops are not systematically recorded by police, and those stopped do not receive any written documentation explaining or recording the incident. Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch had never been told the grounds for the many stops they had experienced. The lack of records makes it very difficult to assess the effectiveness or lawfulness of a stop, Human Rights Watch said.
The testimony in the report adds to statistical and anecdotal evidence indicating that police in France use ethnic profiling – making decisions about whom to stop based on appearance, including race and ethnicity, rather than on an individual’s actual behavior or a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Farid A., a 16-year-old from Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, outside Paris, said he and five friends were stopped three times near the Eiffel Tower: “We came out of the metro, a check. We walk 200 meters, another check. We walk 200 meters, and another check. There were a lot of people, but they stopped only us.”
A 2009 study by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the French National Center for Scientific Research found that in France, black people were six times as likely as white people, and Arabs almost eight times as likely, to be stopped. Many of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch were convinced that their ethnicity, combined with a manner of dress associated with the banlieues – a term used to describe economically disadvantaged suburbs of major cities – played a major role.
“Stopping people because of the color of their skin is a waste of police resources and breeds resentment against the police,” Sunderland said. “Police operations should be based on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes.”
Once stopped, minority youth are often forced to undergo humiliating pat-downs and searches of their personal belongings. Pat-downs can be very invasive – Said, a 25-year-old in Lyon, told us, “They touch our private parts more and more” – and many of those interviewed complained about them. Law enforcement officials defend the pat-downs as a necessary security measure, but their use, though systematic, is not regulated clearly in French law.
Human Rights Watch also heard several disturbing accounts of violence during identity checks, including people who said they had been slapped, kicked, and hit with an electroshock weapon.
Ismael Y, a 17-year-old boy in a southern banlieue of Paris, was stopped with a group of friends by the police outside the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois commuter train station in early 2011. “When we were there with our hands against the wall, I turned toward him [the officer who was frisking him] and he hit me on the head. I said something like why are you hitting me, and he said to shut up, ‘You want a shot of [tear] gas or what?’”
Failure to cooperate during an identity check, asking too many questions, or objecting to the treatment can lead to administrative or criminal charges, including “insulting an officer.” This adds a coercive dimension to identity checks and inhibits people from asserting their rights, Human Rights Watch said.