French police got permission to shoot drivers, but received ‘no training’

PARIS — For years, French police unions have argued that officers should have wider discretion over when to shoot fleeing motorists. Time and again, lawmakers have refused.

Finally in 2017, after a series of terrorist attacks, the government gave in. Eager to crack down on crime and terrorism, lawmakers have passed a bill allowing officers to shoot motorists fleeing traffic stops, even when officers are not in immediate danger.

“For the politicians, because it was real politics, it was hard to say no,” recalled Frédéric Lagache, a leader of the police union Alliance Police who pushed forcefully for the law.

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Since the law was passed, the number of fatal shootings of motorists by police has increased sixfold, according to data recently compiled by a team of French researchers and shared with The New York Times. Last year, 13 people were shot dead in their vehicles, a record in a country where police killings are rare.

The law has come under renewed scrutiny after a policeman killed a teenager during a traffic stop this week, shocking the country and sparking street protests and riots. Several lawmakers have called for the repeal or revision of the law.

Union leaders, including those who supported the law, said training on what it allowed was woefully inadequate.

“We didn’t receive any training,” Lagache said. He and other officers interviewed in the weeks and months leading up to this latest fatal shooting said their lessons had been mostly online – video tutorials showing situations in which officers may or may not shoot – and covered theoretical topics who have failed to grasp the realities of the field.

“We still have today colleagues who open fire because they are convinced that they are protected by the law, when they are not,” said Yves Lefebvre, a union leader who helped negotiate The law project. “There is inevitably collateral damage.”

French police officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment on officer training. Union members are encouraged to blame the formation, rather than their leaders or a law they had supported.

A report published last year by the Court of Auditors, France’s highest public audit institution, showed that nearly 40% of agents did not respect the obligation to attend three shooting training sessions. This is separate from the 2017 law and carries no penalties for ignoring.

Following the recent shooting, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin denied that fatal shootings at fleeing motorists increased after the law was passed, a claim that has been refuted by data compiled by the French researchers.

Experts and police lawyers say the law and the series of police shootings that followed are the unintended consequences of the French government’s response to terrorism and an increase in threats against the police.

“The law was passed to achieve the intended effects,” said Marie-France Monéger, the former head of a powerful police force that investigates police forces, referring to the fight against terrorism. “Then you have the unintended effects and then you have the perverse effects.”

Suicide bombings in Paris in 2015, a deadly attack on a truck in Nice in 2016 and a firebombing that seriously injured two police officers that year in the Paris suburbs prompted calls for increased security. . The bill, which also allowed officers to shoot fugitive suspects deemed dangerous, was passed overwhelmingly in February 2017.

But shooting moving or speeding cars is a tactic that many cities have banned as too dangerous. New York City Police Department officers, for example, have been generally banned from shooting cars since 1972.

“What France is doing is in many ways an anomaly,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group in Washington whose members are police executives from major cities, counties and forces. of State.

In the past, French police were only allowed to shoot at vehicles when they were in immediate danger, the same right of self-defense as any citizen. Police unions, a powerful political force in France, however, argued they should have broader authority to fight crime and rules that match those of the gendarmerie, a French police force with military status.

Now, the police can shoot when they believe that motorists risk endangering lives by fleeing. Officers, says the law, can use their weapons in cases of “absolute necessity and in a strictly proportionate manner”.

Catherine Tzutzuiano, a law professor at the University of Toulon, said the wording of the law “suggests that officers can use their weapons more easily”.

The bill has drawn heavy criticism from France’s Defender of Rights, an independent government ombudsman who monitors civil rights, and the National Human Rights Advisory Committee, a UN-affiliated group that advises the government. French. Both have warned that the law’s vague wording could lead to more fatal shootings.

These shots increased almost immediately after it went into effect. In the first nine months, police shot and killed five motorists, more than in the five years before the law.

“In 2017, the wrong message was sent. We said, ‘Now you can shoot cars,'” Laurent-Franck Liénard, a lawyer who is defending most of the 13 police officers involved in last year’s fatal traffic stops, said in an interview online. FEBRUARY. “It was total nonsense.” He said most of the officers involved were young recruits in their twenties who had received limited marksmanship training.

Since 2017, Liénard said in the same interview, the situation has improved. Officers are more careful to shoot only in self-defense, he said.

Liénard said the officer involved in this week’s shooting, who he also represents, “shot within the law.” This officer has not been publicly identified.

The upward trend in fatal roadside checks since 2017 “is really a big problem, which has probably made France the European champion in lethal shootings at vehicles”, said Sebastian Roché, police expert at the National Center for Scientific Research in the country, which compiled the data and shared it with The Times.

A research paper on the subject is being reviewed by a US newspaper, he said, adding that the underlying figures on shootings and traffic stops come from French police.

On average, France has recorded a fatal shooting every two and a half months since the adoption of the law, compared to one every 16 months before the law, a sixfold increase.

French authorities and police unions have argued that this increase is mainly due to an increasing number of drivers who refuse to stop and therefore endanger the lives of others. The number of such dangerous refusals to stop recorded by the police has doubled from 2012 to 2021, according to official police data.

But that doesn’t explain the six-fold increase in the shooting rate.

The researchers also ruled out that the surge could be attributed to an overall increase in crime. They noted that, unlike the French national police, the number of fatal traffic stops had barely increased in the Gendarmerie, the French military police, and in the police forces of Belgium and Germany, two countries with high death rates. homicides relatively similar to France.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Roché said. “The 2017 law giving more powers to the police is the cause of the increase in fatal police shootings.”

It remains unclear what training the officer involved in Tuesday’s killing had received. In video of the incident, the officer can be seen from the driver’s side of a car, pointing a gun at the vehicle. When the car started to drive away, he shot the driver, who was pronounced dead an hour later. Police identified him only as Nahel M., a 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent.

A French prosecutor said on Thursday that, even under the provisions of the 2017 law, the officer failed to meet the legal standard to open fire. The officer was placed under official investigation for “intentional homicide”.

Prominent politicians have called for a review of the law. And an editorial in Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, called for changes to the law.

“How can a problem that arose in 2017 and has been confirmed by facts every year since then be addressed politically only today,” said Marine Tondelier, the leader of the French Greens, “just because a 17-year-old boy died and that we have a video.

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