When the amateur video begins, it’s dark -- nighttime -- and hard to see, but two men are definitely fighting. A flash of white reveals that one is wearing a police uniform. During these first few seconds, it’s hard to know what is going on in this video -- which has been viewed more than 800,000 times on French social media. But it soon becomes clear that the footage shows a fist fight between a young Parisian and a police officer. The footage also shows lots of witnesses -- including other police officers -- just standing by and watching.
This unlikely scene took place around 3am on June 27 near Porte de la Chapelle in Paris.
FRANCE 24 spoke with numerous witnesses and pieced together the series of events that lead to this street fight. Here’s what happened: Earlier in the evening, a 20-year-old man nicknamed Dybala and three of his friends had set up a table and a screen in front of his house on Raymond Queneau Street. They were gathered around, playing a FIFA football game on a Playstation.
Dybala and his friends often hung out outside like this in the evenings. But tonight was different.
“A police patrol passed by for the first time,” he told the FRANCE 24 Observers team. “One of the officers was nervous and aggressive right from the get go.”
“He threatened to tear gas us if we didn’t put away our PlayStation immediately. His fellow officers, on the other hand, were calm. I personally think that they disagreed with his behavior, but they didn’t want to show it in front of us.”
FRANCE 24 also spoke to Samy (not his real name), a 28-year-old who witnessed the incident. Samy was standing on a sidewalk across the street when the officers first came up to Dybala and his friends.
Even though there was clearly a power imbalance, it seemed like a pretty routine interaction during a patrol at first,” Samy told the FRANCE 24. [The policemen continued on their way but quickly returned. ]
We had started to pack up our things when the same policeman came up to me, speaking disrespectfully. Then, he shoved me,” Dybala said. [The interaction quickly escalated.]
He actually slapped me, I was pretty wound up, so I told him to step aside and slap me again if he dared. He did,” Dybala said. The police officers said not to separate When the policeman I was fighting fell down, I injured him"
"The police officer taunted me, saying ‘Are you happy now that you’re creating a buzz?’"
Dybala said. Dybala admitted to FRANCE 24 that he himself doesn’t shy from a fight. Pretty soon, the two men were all out fighting in front of the other officers, Dybala’s friends and other witnesses like Samy.
As you can see on the video, it is only when the officer loses his balance and collapses that another policeman wields his truncheon and tries to strike Dybala, but the young man and his friends quickly flee the scene.
The young men weren’t chased down and the police officers on hand didn’t call in reinforcements. The officers get back into their vehicle and drive off.
The same officer walked down Raymond Queneau Street again two days later,” Dybala told FRANCE 24. “He taunted me, saying ‘Are you happy now that you’re creating a buzz?’ This time, I didn’t respond to him.”
"That this isn’t an isolated occurrence"
Samy, who witnessed the scene, obtained a copy of this video, which seems to have been filmed by one of Dybala’s friends. Samy sent it to the National Observatory for Police Violence (In French, the Observatoire nationale des violences policières.) The video was watched 60,000 times on the Observatory’s home page. Later, it was reposted on a site that shares videos of street fights where it garnered 745,000 views.
Amal Bentounsi, the spokesperson for the Observatory, founded a collective called “Emergency our police murder” after her brother was killed when he was shot in the back by a police officer.
“After this video was posted, other people came forward with stories of similar incidents, which proves that this isn’t an isolated occurrence,” Bentounsi told FRANCE 24. [That said, she is not aware of any such event being tried in court. And while Dybala said it was the first time he had experienced something like that, it wasn’t the first time it happened in his neighbourhood.]
“I know at least three people about my age who live around Marx Dormoy [an area in Paris] who have fought face-to-face with a police officer,” he told FRANCE 24.
Samy wasn’t surprised by what he saw, either.
"Police officers are human beings, which means they have the same weaknesses and pride as anyone. There’s nothing new about seeing a police officer strut around like a rooster in a barnyard, especially in front of his colleagues. We’ve all heard those stories. But Thankfully, not all police officers are like that,
Samy says that when young guys in his neighbourhood get insulted by the police, it is pretty common for them to ask the officer to fight like a man. It’s rare, however, for an officer to accept the challenge. The most likely police officers to engage in this kind of behavior are, according to Samy, members of the Anti-Criminality Brigade (the BAC), a branch of the police who often patrol high-crime areas in civilian clothes.
Quentin Gourdin, the spokesman for RAID Aventure, an organisation made up of police officers, said that he was taken aback by the video.
That kind of incident is from another era,” he said. “I grew up in a rough neighbourhood in the Île-de-France region around Paris and I worked for 15 years as a police officer in those same neighbourhoods and, in all that time, I never saw anything like that. It shows a lack of integrity and a lack of respect for the code of ethics.”
It’s fairly common for police to be challenged to fight during difficult situaitons, according to Axel Ronde, the secretary general of the CGT police union in the Île-de-France region.
But those are just words,” Ronde told FRANCE 24. “This is the first time that I’ve actually seen something like that materialise. We’re police officers, we’re not in a boxing ring. We need to wait for an actual investigation before we can really react but I can say right off the bat that the footage is extremely shocking -- almost surreal. The police officers are making fools of themselves in that video; there is no reason to do something like that. Of course, failures do occur in the system. But to see officers go as low as that… it really makes us wonder about more serious issues involving inadequate training of our forces or perhaps problems with the management of officers posted to the most difficult neighbourhoods.”
The only explanation for that kind of behavior, in Ronde’s eyes, is that the two men involved in the fight knew each other already and had bad blood between them. But, when asked, Dybala denied that they had any history.
The FRANCE 24 Observers showed the video several days ago to the local police department, who were not aware of its’ existence at the time. On July 18, the Paris public prosecutor reported that it had opened a preliminary investigation into the incident and that the branch of the police tasked with investigating crimes involving police-- known as the IGPN, short for L'Inspection générale de la Police nationale -- is currently working to uncover the identity of the officer in this video.
In the eyes of the law, even though the young man and the officer agreed to fight, they could be held criminally responsible for their actions. They could face up to three years in prison and a 45,000 euro fine. The police officer in question, as well as his colleagues, could also face administrative sanctions. According to Ronde, the other officers who made up the patrol could be suspended for their failure to intervene as well as their failure to report the incident.
Gourdin says that this “duel” didn’t help either participant: “Aside from creating some violence and a little bit of buzz, it didn’t do anything to improve the situation.”
He thinks that there needs to be more positive contact between officers and the neighbourhoods that they work in.
If they planned sports matches against one another, that could help dissipate some of the tension and open up channels of dialogue between officers and locals,” he said. “We’ve been running a programme for the past five years that does just that called Prox Aventure.