Valentin Gendrot, a French journalist who infiltrated the country’s police force has described a culture of racism and violence in which officers act with impunity. He spent almost six months in a police station in one of Paris’s tough northern arrondissements where relations between the law and locals are strained. Gendrot joined the Police Nationale as an adjoint de sécurité – a contracted and salaried “special constable”. He says, the police recruiters did not delve into his background. As officer number 299145, he was issued his uniform and pistol. The station covers one of Paris’s grittier districts with 190,000 inhabitants and a particular problem with juvenile delinquency, drugs and prostitution. After three months’ training at police school in St-Malo, in Brittany – he finished 27th out of a class of 54 – Gendrot was posted to a police psychiatric unit for 15 months before landing a job at a station in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.
Gendrot claims the violence was so frequent it became almost banal and describes one incident where he was forced to help falsify evidence against an adolescent who had been beaten by an officer.
“It really shocked me to hear police officers, who are representatives of the state, calling people who were black, Arab or migrants ‘bastards’, but everyone did it,” he says. “It was only a minority of officers who were violent … but they were always violent.”
On one of his first patrols, he describes how a colleague beat up a teenage migrant in the back of the police van. “Two weeks in uniform and already I’m complicit in the beating up of a young migrant,” he writes. The incident was never written up. “What happened in the van, stays in the van,” he notes.
On another occasion, Gendrot and his patrol were sent to investigate after a complaint about youngsters with a speaker. When his colleague humiliated one of the youths and the youth responded verbally, the youth was beaten, arrested and charged.
“We could have confiscated the speaker and gone. Or said nothing and gone. Instead, it escalated and he was beaten,” says Gendrot.
Worse still, when the beaten boy lodged an official complaint against the police, Gendrot’s colleagues concocted a story and insisted he gave false sworn evidence to internal investigators, exposing him to a charge of falsifying evidence, which carries a hefty fine and prison sentence.
Gendrot says he was shocked to discover how badly trained and paid police recruits are and how the constant stress and daily hostility and violence they face drives officers to depression and suicide. Gendrot reveals that he was given a uniform and a gun after just three months’ training, and later sent out on patrol.
He says he witnessed officers assaulting youngsters – many of them minors – on an almost daily basis. Gendrot describes a “clannish” system that ensures officers close ranks to protect their own, leading to a sense of impunity.
“They don’t see a youngster, but a delinquent … once this dehumanisation is established everything becomes justifiable, like beating up an adolescent or a migrant,” he writes, adding: “What astonishes me … is at what point they feel untouchable, as if there’s no superior, no surveillance by the hierarchy, as if a police officer can choose – according to his free will or how he is feeling at that particular moment – to be violent or not. In my commissariat there were racist, homophobic and macho comments every day. They came from certain colleagues and were tolerated or ignored by others.”
Officers were often snowed under with form-filling and random “targets”, worked in decrepit offices, drove battered cars and often had to buy essential equipment from their own pockets, leading to high levels of depression. In 2019, 59 police officers committed suicide, a 60% rise on the previous year. A Facebook group set up to support “distressed” officers had several thousand members in just a few days.