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Police perform a stop during the Covid-19 lockdown in Nice, France, April 8, 2020 © 2020 Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Discriminatory police stops are a poison. In France, those who are poisoned are first and foremost the young men and even boys, perceived as Black or Arab, who are routinely stopped by the police not because of what they are doing or are suspected of doing, but solely because of their appearance.

These discriminatory identity checks—as they are called in France—deny the very humanity of those being stopped. Over the years, numerous rigorous studies as well as testimony from people subjected to these stops, have revealed the damage they cause. They stigmatize, they degrade, they humiliate. They are a violence and a trauma. We should understand that for many adolescents, some of them very young, these identity checks are their first interaction with the police and their first experience of discrimination. Many political leaders have recognized and condemned these abuses. But it is not enough to denounce and condemn. Action is needed to remove the poison from the well.

Discriminatory identity checks are also a poison for the police themselves. Discriminatory policing contributes to diminishing the trust, which is indispensable, between all the components of the population and the police and the public institutions they represent. For years, our organizations have been calling for an end to these illegal and ineffective practices, and in doing so we have contributed to raise awareness about the issue.

Discriminatory identity checks are not isolated acts by law enforcement officers who fail to act in accordance with their professional and ethical obligations. They are the result of a combination of factors that go well beyond the behavior of any individual officer. Among these factors: an overly broad legal framework, measuring police performance by quantitative targets, the absence of effective hierarchical control and transparency, entrenched police practices in the streets, and prejudice -- sometimes including racism. This discrimination is therefore systemic, that is to say that it is the product of a system that enables it.

Even though some police officers claim, misreading the law itself, that identity checks are under the control of a judge, most are not. The law provides for various categories of identity checks, including administrative or preventive stops and stops on the initiative of the police. These “routine” stops are carried out without the oversight of a judge, or even of the police hierarchy, and often without any disturbance of public order. The police do not need any objective reason to stop someone.

But this permissive framework opens the way to arbitrariness, and therefore to discrimination. These "checks without check" leave no trace, except for the wounds inflicted on the dignity and existence of those who know all too well that it was their appearance that caused them to be stopped, often frisked and searched, sometimes in front of friends, family or passers-by.

Last December, President Macron recognized and named the evil, lamenting that it has not yet been driven out. A national consultation was convened, one of whose stated objectives was to reflect on the relationship between the police and the population. For a moment, we could have thought that the combined efforts of lucid police officers, sociologists, experienced associations and affected individuals, along with determined politicians could lead to realistic and ambitious measures that would make these illegal practices disappear.

Nothing of this kind has been announced so far, except for a platform for reporting discrimination, a measure that we had been testing for years and that in no way responds to the magnitude of the problem. It is of course important that each person who is a victim of discrimination, whether it is linked to police practices or not, can report the unacceptable violation of their rights. Nevertheless, a collection of complaints will neither prevent these phenomena nor address the systemic problem of discrimination rooted in police practices.

Why stick with isolated measures that have already shown their limits? For lack of political will and courage, no doubt. For lack of rigorous analysis, for sure.

There’s no one silver bullet for ending racial profiling. On the contrary, putting an end to these unworthy practices requires a set of coordinated and ambitious measures that respond to all the factors that cause them.  This is why we are calling for the reform of the legal framework for identity checks, which is currently too broad and opens the way to arbitrariness and discrimination. France needs to adopt specific rules for stops of children, collect data on identity checks, develop a system for recording stops, and create an independent complaints body.

Faced with the government’s inertia, our organizations have decided to take an unprecedented initiative. We have put the government on notice that it should take the appropriate measures to eliminate these discriminatory controls. If, within four months, the necessary reforms have not been embraced, our organizations will be able to turn to the courts and ask them to order these measures. Will the government allow the poison to spread or will it choose to use the right antidote?

By Omer Mas Capitolin, head of the association Maison communautaire pour un développement solidaire (MCDS) ; Cécile Coudriou, President, Amnesty International France ; Issa Coulibaly, President, association Pazapas Belleville ; Isabelle Dupraz-Guillard, Vice-President, association Réseau-égalité, anti-discrimination, justice interdisciplinaire (REAJI) ; Lanna Hollo, Legal Advisor, Open Society Justice Initiative ; Bénédicte Jeannerod, Human Rights Watch France Director.

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