A man suspected of being a dealer was arrested on Wednesday February 1 in the southern French port city of Marseille by two police officers... who had donned traditional Muslim dress in order to make the arrest. The scene was filmed and shared on French social media, with many people asking the question: was the move entirely above board?
The arrest was carried out in La Bricarde, a neighbourhood in the 15th arrondissement of Marseille in the north of the town. One of the police officers who appears in the video is wearing a qamis, a long tunic often worn by Muslim men. The other officer is wearing a jilbab, another long tunic that also covers the head, usually worn by women. In the video, the officers are joined by another officer in uniform after having arrested the suspect.
First shared on Snapchat, the video was then taken up on Twitter:
A number of residents in the neighbourhood weren't best pleased by the police's latest tactic. Wassim (not his real name), told France 24 :
This is the first time that I've heard of the police using this strategy. I don't think it's right for the police to pretend to be Muslim just in order to arrest someone, even if the rules do go out of the window in this game of cat and mouse. They could have simply been in mufti, without having to pretend to be Muslim.
Some locals also didn't like that the police were reinforcing the stereotype of the poorer suburbs of the city being full of Muslims. The person who posted the video on Twitter wrote, "This gives the impression that you basically have to be Muslim or look like a Muslim in order to blend in." He continued, "This could cause a lack of trust between the police and those they're trying to imitate."
First comment: "Ridiculous! Where's the respect for the Muslim religion? It's not a costume. The Minister of the Interior permits policemen to act like this, well done. Isn't France beautiful! Liberté, égalité, fraternité [France's motto: Freedom, equality, brotherhood]"
Second comment: "I don't think it's legal for the police officers to do this, to dress up in order to carry out their job. Someone should complain!"
On the other hand, some residents think that the tactic might be a necessary evil. Clara (not her real name), spoke to France 24 about the incident.
In the neighbourhoods, there are people who act as lookouts and immediately alert the dealers when the police are coming. The police sometimes even arrest people that they don't know. So I think that trying to blend into the crowd in order not to attract attention is a good way of catching traffickers.
What's more, the police are not really respected on the council estates, which have become no-go areas. Even the police are scared to go there, which isn't right. So it's hardly surprising that when they come they have to disguise themselves — although I can understand why lots of people are criticising them for it.
A typical technique
The regional centre for public security told Mediapart [link in French] that the arrest was part of a special ground operation in the aims of cracking open a drug network in the neighbourhood. "The special officers arrested a dealer who had a kilo of cannabis and hundreds of euros in his bag, as well as another member of the drugs network and a buyer."
According to the centre's spokesperson, donning a costume to carry out an arrest is a classic technique, most often used by 'first responders' in order to get as close as possible to the scene of a crime and "hone in on the suspect without causing trouble or anybody getting hurt".
Luc Poignant, from the police force trade union Unité SGP Police-Force Ouvrière told daily newspaper 20 minutes [in French], that he was nevertheless surprised by the use of such a tactic. According to him, police work is generally done in mufti or in uniform. "The idea is to blend in with the crowd, but not to that extent!"