PARIS – Boubacar Dramé thought he was going to die. He remembers the cops digging their knees into his neck, struggling for breath, gulping desperately for air.
Eleven months before a video of George Floyd’s death set off a global wave of anti-racism and Black Lives Matter protests and marches, Dramé says he was the victim of police brutality, in an incident caught in multiple videos, that took place in broad daylight in a Paris suburb.
The disturbing footage shows two plainclothes officers pinning Dramé down with their knees, as bystanders film, loudly protesting the use of force, and trying to tell the cops that Dramé works for the city as a local youth worker and community organiser, and is well known in Gennevillers.
Just a few minutes before, Dramé had met a distraught mother on the street who said she had lost her young daughter, and was able to help reunite them. He had however initially asked someone else to call the cops to report a missing child and when approached by a man identifying himself as police, mistakenly believed he was responding to the call.
But the first officer said he was conducting a routine ID check, something resembling stop-and-search in the UK or stop-and-frisk in the US, which police in France perform regularly in predominantly Black and low-income communities. In an official complaint, Dramé says that the situation escalated significantly with the arrival of a second officer, who without a word proceeded to pat him down aggressively and put his hands in his pockets.
Dramé pleaded with the cops for more discretion, concerned that the underprivileged young people he worked with in the community could be watching. But they slammed his body to the ground, according to the official complaint filed with a French police watchdog that investigates police conduct, seen by VICE World News. He was told to “stop talking like that, it doesn’t suit you,” Dramé says in the documents, which also accuse the officers of discrimination.
At various points during the arrest, officers pulled on his beard and dug a key into Dramé’s ribs, the documents say. While pushing him into the unmarked police car, out of view of the camera, Dramé alleges that one of the officers put his hand between his legs and crushed his testicles.
“I begged them to just listen to me. But they crushed my head, my neck, my chest. They stopped me from breathing. I thought they were going to kill me,” he told VICE World News in an interview. “I didn’t understand what was going on, and at one point I asked them if they were really the police. And given what they did to me in broad daylight, I was scared of what they would do to me in the car out of sight from the public.”
Dramé was taken to a police station but released soon after without charge. He subsequently filed a complaint about the incident with the support of the mayor of Gennevilliers, who denounced the “disproportionate use of force” and unacceptable behaviour of the officers. Soon after the video went viral, many of his colleagues, past and present, came to his defence, describing him as an upstanding, conscientious and professional citizen and called for the officers to be disciplined.
Two years passed. But then at the end of April, came a hammer blow. The case was officially closed by the region’s public prosecutor, who concluded that the violence suffered by Dramé was not “blatant.” He is filing a new complaint.
Dramé’s case is just one of several high profile incidents involving allegations of police brutality and discrimination against young Black, Arab or migrant men in France to provoke public outrage and draw tens of thousands of French people to the streets over the last year, and make police-linked violence one of the most explosive issues in France.
In 2016, Adama Traoré died while in police custody on his 24th birthday. Last October, three cops were fired after a Black officer discovered dozens of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist and white supremacist voice messages on a private WhatsApp group in the northern city of Rouen. Last November, police were filmed beating a Black music producer in Paris. And this spring, independent media Streetpress reported that a 23-year-old Black man had filed a complaint accusing officers of punching him repeatedly in the stomach, strangling him, calling him a “dirty Arab”, stripping him naked and sexually assaulting him. A medical certificate has reportedly confirmed the assault.
Adding fuel to the fire, a recent survey showed that almost three quarters of active police officers would vote for Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration party the National Rally, over President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s election.
The stage is set for a series of major anti-racism marches organised by a collective of human rights groups, unions, independent media and the political left. Protests are set to take place in cities across France this weekend and draw big crowds – and more clashes with police.
For their part, cops in France say they are under siege. This weekend’s marches are being organised partly in response to a protest held by police unions in May, after the deaths of two officers in separate incidents, one during a drug trafficking operation in Avignon that month, the other killed in a terrorist attack at a police station at Rambouillet on the outskirts of Paris in April. A trial for the murder of a police officer killed on the Champs-Elysees in 2017 also opened this week. Cops who took to the streets demanded harsher sentences for violence committed against their own. They also blamed anti-cop rhetoric for fuelling more brazen and targeted attacks against their officers.
A report this month released by a health insurance company for cops claimed that over the last 25 years, 1,100 officers died by suicide in France, equalling an average of 44 police officers a year – 50 percent higher than the national average. The accompanying survey also found that a quarter of the 6,000 officers polled had thought about killing themselves.
“In France, the police have always divided the population, it’s an explosive subject. Everyone has an opinion,” says Valentin Gendrot, a French journalist who infiltrated the police as an undercover investigative reporter and worked as a badge-carrying cop for two years. “What interested me was to explore police brutality and the malaise within the police force at the same time.”
The result of his journalistic experiment was a bombshell of a book called “Flic” or “Cop” which was published last year and provides a rare look into the inner workings of a police force that confirmed what many already knew, and highlighted just how deep the problems run.
As soon as Gendrot arrived at the police station in the 19th arrondissement in the northeast of Paris in 2019, his new colleagues told him to forget everything he been taught at the police academy because, ‘you’ll soon see, it doesn’t work that way out in the streets,’” Gendrot recalls.
Some of his colleagues referred to migrants, Black and Arab men as bastards, mutts and mongrels, he says. While conducting routine ID checks, they only ever stopped migrants, Black and Arab men, and officers were often verbally and physically abusive, Gendrot says.
“The impression they have is that migrants and immigrants are scum, vermin, and shouldn’t be in France,” he says. “I witnessed a lot of physical abuse against these people, but never against a white person.”
Unlike the US or UK where police stops are recorded and registered, police in France are not required to report their ID stops. The practice is considered a legitimate policing strategy in France, and repeated calls to end the rampant racial profiling have gone ignored.
Earlier this year, a group of six French and international civil society organisations including Amnesty International France and Human Rights Watch (HRW) filed a class-action lawsuit against the French government calling for an end to systemic racial profiling within the police.
“Ethnic profiling is a longstanding, pervasive, widespread, and well-documented problem in France. The police use overly broad powers to conduct discriminatory and abusive identity checks based on physical characteristics perceived to be associated with being Black or Arab,” reads a statement from HRW.
After spending two years training and working alongside the French police, Gendrot has his own theory on the racist leanings of some officers.
“Most of the young recruits who are posted in Paris aren’t from Paris, they come from small towns and smaller cities that aren’t diverse,” he says in a phone interview. “When they arrive, there’s a real ignorance about the city and the people they’ll be policing.”
Moreover, instead of being mentored by older more experienced officers, new recruits are offered little guidance and left to their own devices, some of whom make up their own rules as they go.
Fabien Jobard, a French researcher who co-wrote “Sociologie de la Police” in 2015, says the Paris terror attacks in 2015 drew a large number of police trainees who harboured outsized fantasies of playing the role of superhero and keeping their country safe by chasing after Muslim terrorists.
In a bid to beef up security and put more officers on the ground following the attacks, France shortened its training program in the National Police force from 12 to eight months, and loosened the admission standards. In France, policing is a three-tiered system consisting of the National Police which operates in Paris, the gendarmerie or military and municipal police forces.
Before 2016, Jobard says the admission rate to the National Police was three to four percent. After 2016, that rate shot up to an average of 16 percent.
“Undoubtedly, they probably let in a lot of people who didn’t have the best intentions, people who were convinced they were going to be chasing young Arab terrorists all the time,” Jobard says.
Instead, newer officers realised that the the day-to-day job is a mix of menial tasks – processing complaints at the police station, answering phone calls, helping the elderly with Alzheimer’s find their way home – to more traumatic cases that involve child abuse, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and horrific road accidents.
“As police, we deal with difficult situations and then we bury them internally,” says Cyril Cros, a serving police officer with 25 years of experience in the National Police. “Over your career, you become a sponge, absorbing all the misery and misfortune that you’ve seen and it starts to infect you, eat you from the inside.”
Over the years, Cros says he became irritable with his family, was quick to lose patience, snapping at his wife and kids. His depression began to spiral out of control, and eventually led to the darkest moment of his life.
In 2018, believing with absolute conviction that his family would be better off without him, Cros went out into his garden with the intention of ending his life. But at that moment, just as he was about to take the final step, he heard his kids, then 10 and 13, who had come home.
“My kids saved me,” he says.
Others weren’t so lucky. Cros lost two police friends to suicide and another five acquaintances from within the police force. All the more reason chants from Yellow Vest protestors in 2019 calling for police to “Go commit suicide” were met with shock and outrage.
Cros was hospitalised for six months and received psychiatric treatment. He would go on to launch Assopol, a support group that helps connect police officers in distress with therapists and psychologists via private donations. Because while the National Police has its own in-house psychologists, there aren’t nearly enough to go around and inspire distrust among some, says Cros.
“We need more training on the psychological impacts linked to dealing with tragedies and victims in distress and how to manage these kinds of situations,” Cros said.
Thierry Clair, a spokesperson for UNSA-Police, one of several police unions across the country, agrees and acknowledges the need for regular support programs that go beyond how to shoot a firearm; continuous training that focuses on how to de-escalate situations without resorting to the use of force, and how to restore relations with the community.
“We’re not efficient in these areas, we need better training programs to modernise the police force,” he says.
While Gendrot, the undercover journalist, said he empathises with the police for having to deal with the “miseries of humanity” every day, he also stresses the need for major reform.
“The police need to clean house. They must fire the officers who are racist and violent and have no right to be there.”
Despite his experiences, Gendrot maintains that only a minority of cops are racist. In his station, he said six of his 32 colleagues were the big troublemakers. But he also points out that the others gave their hate-filled colleagues a free pass and said nothing when they crossed the line. In his book, Gendrot also exposes a culture in which cops will cover up for each other by lying and falsifying documents, and admits to being complicit in lying about a police assault against a Black teenager at the suggestion of his colleague. The case has since been reopened.
Clair, the union spokesperson, denies that the police force is inherently racist, but acknowledges that a “marginal” few may hold racist ideologies, as the force is a reflection of French society. He points out that the IGPN fires 60-100 officers a year. But the IGPN itself is regarded with suspicion by some, as it’s known as “the police of the police.” Unlike the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct for example, the IGPN is staffed by police officers.
In the latest report for 2019 released last year, the IGPN received 4,792 complaints. It launched 1,460 investigations, mostly for police brutality, a figure representing a 24 percent increase over the previous year. Despite the spike in complaints, the number of sanctions dropped: Of that number, 276 officers were disciplined, compared to 337 in 2018.
For greater transparency, Clair says his union has been advocating for the use of body cameras; about 30,000 officers are expected to be equipped with their first cameras starting this summer.
He also points out that staffing the IGPN with police gives the institution an advantage, as they know the job intimately and can identify instances where colleagues may try to pull a fast one. But Gendrot and many of its critics see the IGPN as a part of the problem and call for a civilian overhaul.
Jobard, the researcher, offers up a more radical solution for police reform: get rid of the National Police altogether, and let the French military take over. Unlike the National Police, Jobard says the members of the gendarmerie undergo much more rigorous screening and training programs. In the IGPN report, while 82 percent of complaints were filed against members of the National Police, municipal police and the gendarmerie shared five percent of the complaints between them. Jobard also supports the idea of defunding the police and reallocating those resources to social support programs in underprivileged communities.
Meanwhile, in another new development this week, it was also announced that Paris will create its own municipal police force that will report directly to the mayor’s office.
Dramé says he will be filing another complaint and won’t give up until the officers who completely upended his life are disciplined. After the video went viral, Dramé says he was harassed by local cops who waged a campaign of intimidation, driving up slowly beside him in their police car and staring at him from their window; calling him by first name; and warning him that the next time they catch him he wouldn’t be let off easy.
Before his violent police encounter, Dramé believed it when he told troubled youth that if they stayed on the straight and narrow, “everything would be fine.” Dramé himself was ambitious and was working on his masters in social sciences at the time, which he completed 10 days later.
“I was naive,” Dramé says. “It changed my life, and opened my eyes, changed the way I see society. The French slogan ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ doesn’t apply to everyone here. Society is stratified and excludes people like me.”
Dramé no longer works as a mediator. He no longer believes in what he used to preach, especially after his case was dismissed. He suffers from PTSI and can’t concentrate.
“I’ve lost all self-confidence. When you’re attacked by the people who are supposed to protect you, not for anything you did, but because of what you are, you start to question everything about yourself. When animals are mistreated in France, the offenders are punished. That means that even animals have more rights than I do.”