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A Police Officer Commits Suicide Every Four Days in France: When Will the Government React?

Last updated on 28th July 2019

A police officer kills themselves every four days in France. The crisis is becoming more palpable within law enforcement, and 2019 promises to become a black year if there isn’t a sudden burst of enthusiasm at the highest level of the state.

The report comes back again and again like a sad refrain in police associations and the numbers are growing at such a constant rate that professional unions are beginning to warn them too: since the beginning of 2019, a police officer has committed suicide every four days on average. This social violence continues to a lesser extent among other uniformed personnel (municipal police, prison service, national gendarmerie, the Vigipirate mission, and railway police in particular), so much so that the “counter of shame” operated by the Facebook page “Citizen Solidarity” posts a total of 31 deaths by suicide within the police force in 2019.

This same count had stopped at 88 dead in 2018 – a particularly black year for the national gendarmerie, which had lost 33 employees to suicide during the year, almost joining the National Police, which reported 36 at the end of December 2018.

But with two suicides in the National Police in just 24 hours over the weekend of April 6th, “the Interior Ministry will be forced to react”, said a police officer of the Autonomous Collective of the Police of Ile-de-France. France (CAP-IDF). The Union of Independent National Police (UPNI) spokesman Jean-Pierre Colombies is less optimistic: “Christophe Castaner refused a hearing at the association of Law Enforcement Wives in Anger [FFOC] on this topic in November 2018 is quite evocative, and anyway, one finds oneself in such a context of social tension that one can hardly imagine fundamental work in our sclerotic administration. Meanwhile, in the police stations, it must be made clear, officials do not know how much they can trust their minister. These are the kind of ideas that are come to us from the terrain.”

And this retired policeman lamented unequal treatment: “Regarding police suicides, the situation is catastrophic. A death every four days is unheard of, practically. It is unbearable for us to see this phenomenon explained as ‘personal problems’. When the Director of Public Order and Traffic [DOPC], Alain Gibelin, resigned after a big burnout, we were told that it was the workload that caused his illness, but when it is a pig [cop – ed] from the very beginning, we are told that it is the personal context that leads to suicide … It is therefore clear that the assessment of occupational pressure is variable geometry depending on the corps.”

The epidemic of suicides in the National Police force is becoming an endemic problem that some people sometimes like to compare to that of suicide among farmers, a profession also hit hard by social distress. In this regard, according to a Senate report from June 2018, the suicide rate in the police force is 36% higher than that observed in the general population. Among farmers, the same rate was 20% to 30% higher than the average for the French population, according to a study published by the Public Health France agency in 2016. A similar trend, but with a big difference concerning police officers and gendarmes: they all have the same employer, the state; and the same boss, Christophe Castaner.

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The plans that were launched in the past to stem the problem, especially in May 2018 under the aegis of Gerard Collomb, are not considered to be strong enough by some police officers, who put forward the “daily malaise” and the “social context that is currently tense in many socio-professional categories”, as Jean-Pierre Colombies explains. The latter sees in this situation a form of hysterical “mille-feuille” with a bitter taste: “Suicide is only the tip of the iceberg. We do not see that there is also a cohort of officials who are feel very bad and yet want to do their job well … Faced with this, the government only responds with specific measures, cosmetics , without substantive analysis”.

And the associative spokesperson proposed an idea that he himself considers “utopian”: “We should rethink the relationship between police and society, as well as the relationship between the administration and its police officers. Sometimes it works and there are some great service managers, I’ve known some, but you have to admit that some are real cancers, very destructive people that make dialogue between the police and their administration often broken. In these cases, when occupational pressure adds to personal problems, some crack. That’s what we showed in our film”.

CAP-IDF, along with UPNI, which for several years has denounced the malaise and silence concerning suicide in the police, made a short film broadcast in March that invites the public to put themselves in the place of a policeman who commits suicide.

On March 12th several police associations, including UPNI, also held a night rally in the streets of the capital to draw attention to this cause. Despite the presence of some media, including RT France, two minority unions (VIGI and France Police) and two political figures (Senator François Grosdidier and the deputy Nicolas Dupont-Aignan), the government has not reacted to this new invitation for dialogue.

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The minority union “Alternative Police-CFDT” has recently stepped up to the plate with a statement: “Although the reasons for the rally remain multifactorial, between private problems and complicated professional situations, there is undoubtedly a real suffering of police officers confronted daily with social misery, hierarchical pressure, and successive tasks without the possibility of regular rest”. And to deplore that “concrete actions to stem the scourge of suicides remain very timid”.

For some years, some people have been calling for ambitious, far-reaching reform while admitting that it will probably not see the light of day anytime soon, while others shyly seek to warn about this worrying phenomenon. But, in any case, a burst of enthusiasm at the highest level of the state is awaited, while the profession is deteriorating in silence. So much so that the profession of policeman no longer arouses vocations. The senators’ report from July 2018 on the state of the internal security forces in France showed the depletion of personnel even before the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement.

Philippe Capon, Secretary General of the “Unsa-Police” union, met by RT France in June 2018, warned from his side about the deterioration of the image of the profession in the eyes of the public and within the public service itself: “90% of police officers advise their children against becoming officers too because the constraints are too important, because the social life is complicated, because the absence from the marital home is very regular […]. Today, the Ministry of the Interior even has difficulty recruiting police officers. Proof of this – they had to launch a large advertising campaign for big money – about €1 million, to be able to bring young people into the National Police and recruit young police officers. The vocation of young people to become police officers, which was very important after the events of January 2015, has come down strongly”.

The association “UPNI” has also ironised this situation by twisting an image of the communication service of the National Police, which it posted on its Facebook page.

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Although the supervision of the police during the mobilisation of the Yellow Vests certainly did not contribute to facilitating relations between the police and the citizens, again leading to an increase in the discomfort felt within law enforcement, an “Elbe” survey conducted for BFMTV nevertheless promises wide popularity of the image of the police among the French population, with 74% of respondents having a good image of the National Police and 76% trusting it. This is a feeling that the Ministry of the Interior would be well advised to cultivate, according to the police officers on the terrain, associations, and trade unionists interviewed.

Antoine Boitel, RT France



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