Research on the Police

The 2005 riots in France, which were sparked by the death of two adolescents electrocuted as they tried to escape the police, have revealed the degradation of the relationships between the youth of the disadvantaged neighborhoods and the law enforcement patrols. Actually, over the last three decades, all urban unrest in the French housing estates has been provoked by the death of young men, always of African origin, as the direct or indirect result of interactions with the police. The background of these events has been a politics of segregation, stigmatization and criminalization of immigrants and minorities, especially apparent since 2000.

To understand the logics of rioters, historians and anthropologists have proposed the concept of moral economy. In the present context, it can be reformulated to encompass the broader scene of the encounter between state forces and marginalized populations. How to articulate the general moral discourse regarding immigrants and minorities, and the specific moral justifications of the police confronted with these populations? What sets of norms, values and emotions are mobilized by law enforcement officers as well as populations with respect to social order and local justice?

In contrast with other countries, and largely due to lack of authorization for such studies, no ethnography of patrol work has been conducted in France. Didier Fassin was able to carry out a fifteen-month participant observation of a police station in the outskirts of Paris, accompanying the night patrols of a so-called anti-crime squad, which had been recently created to implement the policing of neighborhoods regarded as problematic. This investigation was complemented by interviews of adolescents, youth and social workers about their previous experiences with the police.