Body Cameras Alone Won’t Stop Discriminatory Policing in France

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

Asked about ethnic profiling during a recent TV interview, French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to enforce the wearing of body cameras by police officers by the end of his term in 2022 to “retrace the truth of the facts … and … restore confidence [in the police].”

That the French president wants to tackle discriminatory identity checks is positive. But like many leaders before him, Macron puts too much faith in body cameras alone ending these abusive and illegal practices. 

Body cameras are individual mobile cameras mounted on police officers’ uniforms to record their actions. Under French law, their use is intended to deter abusive incidents during interactions with the public, provide evidence, and help train officers. 

But according to France’s National Police Director himself, following a recent large-scale experiment, the use of body cameras to record identity checks “does not constitute a means of verifying whether the check on an individual is abusive” and also does not make it possible to check if individuals are subjected to repeated checks. Rights groups and lawyers have long stressed that body cameras alone are not an effective means of combating ethnic profiling, especially because they are activated at the discretion of the police officer.

For years, independent rights groups and institutions have denounced repetitive, baseless identity checks targeting Black and Arab youths in France, including, as Human Rights Watch recently documented, on children as young as 10. To prevent these abuses, authorities should reform the Code of Criminal Procedure to place tighter controls on when and how police checks occur and explicitly prohibit discrimination. In addition, everyone checked should receive a record of the stop (a “stop form”) and data on stops should be systematically collected. Specific guidelines for stops involving children are also urgently needed.

Macron is right when he says that “we have been talking about [ethnic profiling] for too long” – successive governments have indeed failed to put an end to it. Discriminatory policing is profoundly detrimental both to the people targeted and to the country’s wider social cohesion. It is high time for the French government to address it. Let’s hope this time, they will.