French police go back to school to reflect on their role in society

French police officers are expected to avoid expressing themselves in public and are generally not encouraged to question their profession, but a new university course is asking them to do just that.

Called Police and Population, the sociology course wants officers to ask some hard questions.

“I feel that what I do in bringing the police and the population together gives a sense of purpose to my career,” says Clotaire Lodjro, a patrol officer who in his time off is a member of a community group gets off-duty officers to work with young people in difficult neighbourhoods.

“If I didn’t have that, I might be wondering whether it was worth continuing in the police. But with this course, I have found my place.”

He was speaking after his first full day as a sociology student at the Jules Verne University in Amiens, which is offering a year-long diploma for 50 police officers who will come to the campus two days a month for the next nine months to study the relationship between the police and the people they serve.

Listen to a version of this story in the Spotlight on France podcast:

Spotlight on France, episode 100 © RFI

The course was conceived before the protests and riots at the end of June that followed the fatal police shooting of a young man at a traffic stop in a Paris suburb.

That incident has raised ongoing questions about police violence and the relationship between police and the population – especially residents of the poor suburbs, or banlieues, of Paris and other big cities.

“This is always relevant,” said Philippe Lutz, director of the national police academy, speaking to the roomful of students about the need to look at the relationship between the police and the population.

The police academy trains some 7,000 new police officers each year, but the students at the university are active-duty officers from all over France.

Police vs population

“If we had started this course in 2007, we would have been told, of course you’re doing a degree focusing on the police and the population, because there was Clichy-sous-Bois and three weeks of rioting,” Lutz said.

He was referring to riots in 2005 that were set off by the death of two young men of colour who were electrocuted when they hid from police in an electrical substation.

Lutz also referenced anti-police riots in the Lyon suburbs in 1979 in reaction to the arrest of a car thief.

The relationship between the police and the population is a subject that is “by definition transversal and that is not linked to any particular event”, he said, adding it was “constantly, massively and essentially topical for the national police”.

Lutz recognised that the French police, as an institution, can be very insular.

“Students, when they enter the academy, become internal, and think amongst themselves, and exchange amongst themselves,” he said. This continues once officers start working.

“Sometimes it becomes a feeling of the police against the others, and this aspect, our goal [with the course] is not to fight it, but to give elements to open outwards,” he said.

“This is because police officers – even if they are legally always required to take action – are also citizens.”

Questioning the profession

Frank talk about these issues is not typical of police officials, and many of the officers who applied for and were accepted into the sociology programme appear to crave just that.

“People have preconceptions about the police. And in our ranks, too, there are preconceptions about parts of the population,” said Lodjro.

“What is essential is to be able to speak, to dialogue and try to deconstruct the preconceptions on all sides.”

Anthony Caillet, who works for the judicial police, which investigates crimes for prosecutors, in reference to critiques of France for the excessive use of force by police would like to see the police, as an institution, question itself more.

“France is coming in for a lot of criticism from its European neighbours and the United Nations,” Caillet said.

“It’s just crazy that there is so little reflection within the institution of the police. We must act, to be able to question what we do on a daily basis.”

The difficulty is that “there is a strong group loyalty in the police force. It’s difficult to get away from that. And then there are rules that stop police officers from expressing themselves freely.”

Caillet is able to be openly critical because he is a union leader, which, he says, shields him from the professional and social consequences of speaking his mind.

“One of the challenges is to get them to open up their vision of what the police is. They also need to take a break – in relation to their daily work, the usual ways of thinking, to face these questions,” said Elodie Lemaire, a sociologist, founder of the degree programme who has spent 15 years studying the police.

Who serves whom?

The 50 students and 200 applicants are a self-selected group out of a police force of 150,000 who are prone to asking questions. 

Several are part of the police academy, teaching or preparing materials to teach new officers joining the police.

Alexandre Coqueli is a teacher at the police academy in Nimes, and previously worked as a detective for 13 years.

“I hope I will get some tools to change things in my school and in my way of training,” he said of the university course.

Addressing the relationship between the police and the population is pertinent, he says, as students come into the academy with ideals of serving the public.

“New recruits, they really want to serve people. They have strong values ​​about police and they want to serve the population,” he said.

“But sometimes, the service that young officers want to offer to the population is not the service that the population wants to get. This is why the police is so often criticised.”

Coqueli gives a basic example of traffic control, where the driving population is looking for road safety, but drivers resent the police for imposing traffic fines.

Intellectual arms

One officer, who did not want to be identified, because she worked in the past on sensitive investigations, and now runs a CRS unit, said the issue for her is not so much a division between the police and the population, but how the police are perceived,

“I am convinced that French people love their police, and the police love the population,” she said. “And the image of the police today is coloured by media coverage and communication from the police itself on the minority of missteps – which makes the population see the police in a negative light.”

Lemaire says the course is not intended to solve tensions between the police and the population, but she has a mission to get the officers to think critically about their work.

She created curriculum to expose the students to all aspects of the sociology of policing, from looking at ideas of deviance, to the relationship to the media.

Many of the two dozen professors who will address the students over their 120 hours of coursework have written critically about the police.

“I think this is a modest contribution to new ways of arming the police. It’s adding an intellectual weapon to their arsenal,” she said.

“This seems to me important in imagining what form policing will take in the future.”

More on this story in the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 100. French police go back to school to reflect on their role in society

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