Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It Could Happen To You ...

In the 10 years of being in Paris, my adopted city, it is impossible to avoid the sight of individuals in the process of being arrested by the Police. Handcuffed and humiliated, surrounded by officers, the prisoner is forcibly lead away to a waiting vehicle. Spectators keep their distance and gloat over the proceedings with "well he probably deserves it", knowing nothing about the circumstances nor the individual in question.

Until now, the only real direct contact I had with the cops was being stopped on my scooter and asked for my papers. Yes, they were always abrupt and to the point but so long as you were honest and respectful with your answers, they normally handed the papers back and waved you on. France has always been a revolutionary country and to control the revolutionaries comes a security force ready to stamp on any fresh spark. Riot Police in plastic body suits armed with pump-action shotguns, strike an aggressive pose on their blocking lines. From dawn to dusk, Police vehicles wail through the streets with their blues and twos blaring, armed officers hanging out of open doors with guns at the ready and gesticulating at other road users to "MOVE ... NOW!" With such an arsenal on the loose, all this noise and hostility, it is hardly surprising that the locals call them 'Starsky et Utch'. Even beat-bobbies hunt in packs and especially around the area where I live, the Les Halles district of Paris. It is renowned as a haven for soft drugs so the law is forever present. The place is simply crawling with uniformed and plain-clothed officers, armed to the teeth and in possession of a bad attitude.

Following a recent brush with the Police, I now find that my respect for them has declined to a thundering 'zero' which, as far as I am concerned, is well merited. It was an event I would rather forget ...


A mate of mine had been arrested and about his person the Police had found a very small quantity of a controlled substance. Had this happened in the street, the offending article would have been viewed as 'for personal consumption'. It would have been confiscated, and after he had supplied proof of his identity to the officers present, he would have been sent on his way and that would have been the end of it. Now enter the Brigade Chief who we'll call 'The Bulldog'.

Along with my friend I was given a thorough searching. I ought to add that I do not partake so, as expected, I was hardly likely to be in possession. The Bulldog decided that as no incriminating evidence was found about me, I was free to go. With a pounding but relieved heart, I made my way to the leave stopping only to ask The Bulldog where were taking my friend so that I might inform his wife that he was in custody. The Bulldog smiled and gave me the address. At the same time a rather over-enthusiastic officer slapped me in irons. That, boys and girls, is privileged information and I did not have the right to know, so I too went along for the ride.

With our hands behind our backs, wrists clamped in vicious steel, we were marched towards our transport, paraded before the locals. Upon reaching the convoy of Police vehicles I was searched once again by an officer who I imagined worked as a melon squeezer in a former career. Thorough, absolutely. Delicate? Well, a bit rough for a first date. He asked me what I had been arrested for but as I was still in a state of shock I really couldn't tell him. The officer with the shotgun kindly replied on my behalf; "Drugs".

I'm sorry, what was that?

Another officer took a long thespian-esque drag on his cigarette and told me to get into the back of a marked Police car, sit in the middle seat and "shut up". Two chunky lads played at bookends and with a childish amount of wheel-spinnning, off went the 3-car convoy - lights and sirens working overtime. Within a few minutes I began to regain some form of real-time consciousness and as the screaming cavalcade made its way down towards the city centre. I could only imagine that the general public thought that 'Starsky et Utch' had nabbed the entire Escobar family. I was aware that this situation had turned nasty but knew I was completely innocent but couldn't help grinning at this ridiculous show of testosterone.

As we neared our destination, bookend No 1 struck up a monotone conversation; "How long have you been in France?" and "What do you think of our country?", polished off by bookend No 2 chipping in with "Do you think you will like French prison?". A first-rate attempt at Police humour, I think you will agree. All the vehicles came to a halt outside the Commissariat in Les Halles and I was bundled out of the car. The Commissariat bears the impressive title of 'Service d'Accueil, de Recherche et d'Investigation Judiciaires (SARIJ)' and is slap-bang in the middle of a huge shopping/metro complex. The Parisien equivalent of London's Oxford Circus or New York's Times Square, only not quite so awe inspiring. We were now being guided through the fortified doors of the Commissariat. I had never seen a couple of white guys cuffed and escorted through these portals but now I was one of them, I can tick that off my 'to do' list.

We were booked in and asked if we wanted a lawyer (but only a one who would confirm that the cell was in a habitable state for our stay), if we wanted a doctor and if we'd like to leave a phone number with the Prosecutor. There was no guarantee that he would call but I gave them my girlfriend's number anyway. At no time, as a foreigner, was I asked if I required the services of a translator. As I had been brought in speaking French, the assumption had been made thast I didn't need one. Despite the basic Human Rights were introduced in 1948, the chapter entitled 'your right to a phone call' seems to be missing from this particular Commissariat's user guide. If you have been booked on a drugs charge, your right to a call is not valid until the first 72 hours of custody have passed but as I had been found with nothing illegal about my person, how could I possibly be here on such a charge? No phone call and no sense. In fact I had been taken into custody as I had requested the location of where they would be taking my friend. The Bulldog thought that that if I was released and managed to warn his wife, any massive drugs find could be scuppered.

Down in the cells I was ordered to strip, turn all my clothes inside-out, turn around, bend over, touch my toes and cough. You could try kissing me first, you bastard. Some arrogant toad with rubber gloves gave me 30 seconds to take the laces out of my boots - "or else". Nice.

For the next 25 hours we would be locked up as guests of the Interior Ministry, housed in far from hygienic surroundings - as people, we no longer existed as free citizens. No contact with the outside world whatsoever - we had simply ceased to be. However, during that time, many clues were given as to what The Bulldog was hoping would happen and what he was really after. It is a well known fact that squads such as Bulldog's are on a financial bonus scheme for arrests and convictions. Fair enough, he was now in line for his arrest money, but now he had to justify it. Meanwhile, there were people on the outside who were looking for us and, in turn, the same people knew other people who were calling his direct line one after another. He could take no more of it and went home.

My girlfriend had not heard a peep out of me all evening and as I was supposed to pick her up from work at 5.30, was getting increasingly worried. She contacted another of my friends and after several conversations, a connection was made - someone else's husband had gone missing at the same time. My cell door had a large double glazed clear(ish) panel through which I could see all the going's on at the front desk and, if their door was left open, they could see into the reception area. Through the windows of the front desk I could see that it was dark outside but as I watched, I saw something which filled me with hope. My girlfriend had marched into the Commissariat and demanded to know if I was being held. "Non, Madame, we cannot tell you". She demanded to know why. "Non, Madame, we cannot tell you that either". I could see that she was getting more than a little heated and the exchange between her and the desk sergeant was one she was up for. As the door to the front desk was open I tried to catch her attention by rolling up my sleeves and waving my white forearms around in the gloom of the cell. The line of sight was perfect as I was directly behind the sergeant's head. I continued waving and eventually she saw me! Gasping in horror, and pointing in my direction, gave the desk sergeant the old panto special; "You don't know where he is? Look, he's behind you!" It was then that one of the desk staff moved in with the order for her to "fuck off". This, I thought, was a great PR exercise on behalf of the Police. Not wanting to be outdone, she side-stepped one of the larger officers, rushed up to the desk and waved at me.

The officers working the desk at this particular station were a particularly obnoxious breed of individual. In fact, station-bound officers in general tend to be plucked from the back row of the remedial class. For anthropologists, they'd make a fascinating study; weight-watchers meets Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Clouseau and a touch of Forest Gump thrown in for good measure.

In the cell I was joined by 'G', a 24yr old Romanian lad who, along with 3 other friends, had come to Paris for a week's holiday. They had bought a number of tourist T-shirts from a street vendor. The vendor had spotted the Police and made tracks and left the Romanians standing around admiring the gifts for their friends back home. In went the snatch-squad, on went the cuffs and 'slam' went the cell door. Then there was 'C', a 23yr old boy from Guadeloupe on a charge of possessing €40 worth of cannabis. For the first 2 hours of being in the cell, he had pleaded for his phone call. He was told to "sit down and shut up". None of us, including the Romanians, were ever given our phone call. In reality, you are granted a call before you reach the Commissariat but upon arrest our rights were not fully explained hence we were not made aware of this.

Ventilation in the cell was minimal. In fact, it stank. During the night, as and when the Police fancied it, they'd shine torches in our faces or switch on a powerful halogen lamp directed towards the cell interior. No water was ever offered to us and in order to stave off headaches and dehydration, I would knock on the cell door and request to be taken to the bathroom. Begrudgingly, anyone in need would be lead down the corridor. No matter your requirement within, the toilet door was always ajar. For myself, I frequently cried wolf and used the toilet trip simply to drink as much water from the tap as I could, then wash my face, arms and neck. With no toilet paper or hand towels available, personal hygiene was another basic facility we would have to wait for. I remained courteous and always thanked my escort for the trip and thanked then again at the cell door. The night shift appeared to have very little to do, except eat take-away food, read newspapers, answer the phone and listen to the radio. So, I thought, let's give them something to do that they actually get paid for.

Since I had never visited the 'Custody World Adventure Playground' before, I was unsure as to what to do. There was nothing I really could do. Sleeping was out of the question as my heart was still racing like a Gurkha Parade Ground and the thoughts in my head were coughing up images of ... well, you can imagine. This was the condition the Police wanted you in and expected you to crack and spill the beans - were there any to spill.

At 2am, my mate in the adjoining cell was taken upstairs to give his statement. As he stepped out of his cell he threw me a glance. Grey and drawn. They brought him down sometime later and soon my name was called. The difference between the staff on the ground floor and the interview room upstairs was extraordinary. "Hello", said a young female plain-clothed officer, "please take a seat and let's get this sorted". I told the young lady that I had a few questions for her, but first, would she be so kind as to give me a glass of water? A full tumbler was swiftly handed to me and she sat down and began her questioning. "You can read French?" she asked me, "Yes, of course", I replied. Behind another desk sat a male officer with a perma-tan who was busy working through a pile of papers. The entire interview was conducted in French during which I asked her a few questions about the technical words she was using. Throughout, she remained courteous and attentive. Perma-tan chipped in with a few questions and soon the 3 of us struck up a convivial conversation. The interview was over and the hard-copy placed before me for approval and signing - timed at 04:30 - a full 12 hours after I had been taken in. Once that was over with, I was allowed to proceed with my questioning. Of course, the first one I came up with was "why am I still here?". The young lady explained that as far as she was concerned, my account of events matched that of my friend, there was no reason to keep me here but I would have to wait a few hours for a urine test. After that, she saw no reason for me to stay. A further 3 glasses of water later and Perma-tan took me into another room to take my finger prints and mug shot. He even allowed me to go to the toilet unsupervised. My stay on the first floor was soon over and I bid the 2 officers 'good morning' and was escorted back down to my concrete gloom.

Time passes so terribly slowly. You have no idea as to what time it is and you start imagining what's happening in the outside world. 'G', 'C' and I tried sleeping on the floor. We made a mattress out of a flea-ridden blanket and covered ourselves with another. 'G' asked for another blanket as 2 was not sufficient for 3 people. "This is not an hotel!" came the reply. Really? And there was I about to book and alarm call and a continental breakfast. The desk staff were noisy and, as expected, seemed to get a kick out of dropping heavy items and turning up the radio. Sure enough, our 'continental breakfast' was delivered; a small carton of orange juice and a biscuit. Yummy. That'll keep the wolf from the door.

The Commissariat started to buzz with the morning shift and those leaving conducted their official handover. The crew who had arrested us the day before clocked-on and got busy. My friend was removed from his cell and cuffed. It was still early but they were off to search his apartment. He was gone about an hour and The Bulldog took the dreaded dope Poodle along for a sniff but, naturally, nothing was found. Following the search at his apartment and the fact that our individual statements matched, it became clear that my mate and I had been honest and truthful all along. To quote my friend, if you know how to make a one-egg omelette, it doesn't make you a grand chef de cuisine, now does it? Upon his return to the nick he was brought into my cell, bringing the guest-count to 4. He slid down the wall and sat on the floor, "Morning". I introduced everyone and we began a good old chat. "If any of this ends up on your blog," my friend began "I'll fucking kill you ..."

Next on the agenda was a urine test. I was sure that once this had been conducted, we'd be out. Again, we waited. To keep spirits high in the cell, I suggested a game of 'Charades' - it seemed appropriate given the circumstances. My friend and I explained the rules to the others and we were soon raucously laughing at 'Jailhouse Rock' and the like. With the dawning of a new day, humour in the cell began to increase. Nervous laughter, maybe, but it was a whole lot better than moping around.

Comedy Hour came to an abrupt halt as the pair of us were called and removed from the cell. Cuffed and under the supervision of 2 officers, were taken outside. Outside! Fresh air. Fill those lungs. It might be the air of a city filled with dog shit and petrol fumes but it never tasted better. One of the officers told us that it was 12:30 and it was the best 12:30 I had smelt in a while. As we drove through the traffic, it became obvious that our escorts were not entirely without compassion. After a while they appeared to relax and we began chatting. At the hospital, the pair of us sat on cold metal seats while the officers lounged on hospital trollies and shared an in-house joke. The pee test was the first process that had happened with any degree of urgency and as my cuffs were being replaced, I cocked my head on one side and asked the officer "not too tight if possible, sir ...". He barked his reply "Rues are rules ...". What no one else saw was his wink and grin, the ratchet clasps were looser than before and far more comfortable. Within the hour we were back in the cell at the Commissariat.

Lunch was served and my friend, being a vegetarian, received a surprise gift. His wife had popped by and delivered a salad sandwich and a can of pop. Once the items had been searched for the ubiquitous file, they were brought through to the cell. To show what a mate is really is, he immediately started ripping the sandwich into 4 and shared it and the plastic cup of pop with his fellow cell-mates. This act of selflessness is typical of him. We were filled with a sense of camaraderie ... and the sandwich.

'G', the Romanian, became agitated as his 3 friends who were being held in other cells were being released. We calmed him down, telling him to remain composed. When it was his time to be called 'upstairs' to sign out, we told him to just look The Bulldog in the eyes, say "yes sir" with a degree of sincerity and to get as far away from here as he could. Sure enough, he was called. A round of hand shakes later and he was out. I was next. Lead upstairs by a young a young Belgian officer, he spoke calmly to me "it's OK, it's all over ...". The Bulldog was in his office and on the phone. It was obvious that he was talking to someone on the outside, connected to us. A sheet of paper was slid in front of me. It had my name on it. I signed it and turned to walk away. "Monsieur!" called The Bulldog, "You do know why you were brought into Garde à Vue, don't you?" As I had signed my release papers, I considered telling him what I thought of him of his bullying tactics and and this system's lack of civil rights. He had me pinned as a fool but I replied with him "yes, because I asked you where you were tasking my friend". He smiled, "Exactly!".

My friend was next for the off.

As a child in the UK I was taught that the law is to be respected and that "if you ever need anything, ask a Policeman". In the France of 2006, things are very much different. If I ever want anything in the future, I will do all I can to avoid asking one as now, apparently, asking a simple question can get you locked up.


In summary, yes, I know there is nothing I can do about any of it - best to let it go - but it does make you stop and think of our Rights as people in France. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Article 63/1 of the CPP states that; "placed in police custody all those presumed to have committed or attempted to commit an offence". Informing the next of kin is a basic civil right which, according to The Bulldog and French Law, was deemed as an attempt to commit a crime. I know my friend and I know he is not a drug dealer. He is a normal run-of-the-mill chap who enjoys a bit of cannabis from time to time. The Bulldog thought he was on to something big as there'd been a white foreigner picked up in Calais the day before with kilo's worth of stuff in his possession. He assumed that we were connected. Where my charge of drugs came from, I will never know but it appears that The Bulldog moved the goal posts to suit his needs.

We all left the Commissariat without charge (the Romanians included). It was a total farce from start to finish and as The Bulldog failed to get a single result, a uniformed Grand Fromage would have most certainly rapped him over his knuckles. French law states that the 'Garde à Vue' act can detain people for a minimum of 24 hours. This can then be extended to 48, then 72 hours. From conversations with people in the know, within 10 minutes of picking us up it was obvious to the entire snatch team that we were not who they were looking for. The man behind the music was clutching at straws and bowling down each and every avenue. Sadly, each and every avenue lead to a dead-end which only fuelled his frustration. We knew we were innocent as did his crew. The Belgian officer has previously visited the cells to assure us that "everything was going to be OK, just be patient". Such is the high level of confidence they have in their leader.

When The Bulldog realised that he had backed a looser, he panicked yet continued to use the Interior Ministry's power to make an arse of himself. This diminutive control-freak is dangerous and believes that he is above the law. His crew knew that he had missed the mark. It would have spoilt his image to admit that he had made a mistake.

No drinking water was ever offered throughout our stay and I have seen a greater level of toilet hygiene in a Kosovan public convenience. The food was minimal and not sufficient. The desk staff addressed us in a highly discourteous manner and on requesting one particular toilet trip I was told to "shut the fuck up".

I could not wait to get out of there. From the moment I had been brought in, all I could think about was being released, free to see my girlfriend, to sleep, free do what I wanted. It may well have only been 25 hours, but it fucks with your head and if you have not experienced the same situation yourself, then how can I expect you to understand. I am an affluent middle-classed white male, with friends. I have thanked those who worked on our behalf, those who bombarded The Bulldog's direct telephone line and those who saw the futile injustice of it all. As my friend was signing out, the pressure on The Bulldog was showing. He passed him the phone saying: "ring your wife, it's zero for an outside line ...".

It is precisely because I am white and middle-classed that I can empathise with those who are not - the frequent raids on housing estates in the Banlieue and for those who get caught up in this bully-police-state ... and for those who haven't a hope in hell.


Blogger Joker said...

You poor sod. Get any photos while you were in there?

Have linked to 5ive-o.Org (a forum run by some really good natured BRITISH cops).

Well worth a look.


Saturday, October 28, 2006 6:26:00 pm  
Blogger Stu said...

Nick, I am not sure that you know what happens to you when you're taken into custody ... your belt and shoe laces are removed and you are left standing in what you arrived in ... sadly, they did not allow me the luxury of wandering around with a 5D SLR and a variety of lenses to document my stay!

Monday, October 30, 2006 3:33:00 pm  

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