The recent clashes between the police and demonstrators, during rallies against the pension reform or against the mega-basins in Sainte-Soline (Deux-Sèvres), have revived the debate on the control of the action of the forces of the order. According to the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, forty-five judicial investigations into the actions of the police have been entrusted, since January, to the General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN), or to its equivalent for the gendarmerie, the ‘IGGN, two bodies that depend on the Ministry of the Interior.

The Defender of Rights, Claire Hédon, announced on Tuesday April 4 that she had received ninety referrals for “police violence” since the start of the mobilization against the pension reform. She will be present in the command room of the Paris Police Prefecture for the demonstration on Thursday, April 6. This independent institution, which replaced the Mediator of the Republic, reports on its activity to the President of the Republic and to Parliament. External control of the action of law enforcement is one of its missions but, in practice, its powers are limited.

Depending on the country, two main models of law enforcement control seem to emerge: “Either an organization has considerable means but proves to be not very independent in law, or it is very independent in law but finds itself deprived of means” , sums up Sebastian Roché, director of sociology research at the CNRS and co-author of a study carried out in twenty European and North American countries on “external police control agencies” on behalf of the Network of Independent Authorities Responsible for complaints against the security forces (IPCAN).

France, recalls the sociologist, took as a model the Portuguese and Spanish police control bodies, which were set up in a context very different from ours, that of recent democracies wanting to mark a difference with the previous period of political regimes authoritarian. Conversely, he describes, in countries where oversight bodies are better endowed, their heads are appointed and dismissed by the executive.

In Sweden, the ombudsman, a founding model

The Swedish ombudsman, which in English means “man of grievances”, was created in 1809 and is the first instance of mediation between the people and the administration. This model was then very successful in the Scandinavian countries and beyond, in Southern and Eastern Europe. These bodies, “generally enshrined in the national Constitution, present strong formal guarantees of independence”, describe the researchers in the Ipcan study.

Appointed by Parliament, the four Swedish ombudsmen do not receive instructions from the government. They can be seized by a citizen or self-seize. The number of complaints is constantly increasing, proof of their implantation in Swedish culture.

The scope of an ombudsman does not only cover the control of law enforcement, but also the protection of human rights, the control of places of detention or the protection of children’s rights… He can prosecute and sanction a civil servant if he finds that he has taken actions that conflict with the law, which “contributes strongly to his authority”, says a Council of Europe report. The ombudsman can give redress to the victim of an administration, “by far the most used skill”, specifies this same report.

However, it has few means to investigate – characteristics found in almost all countries that have adopted the ombudsman system, or some equivalent. In the Ipcan comparison, Sweden is one of the least well-off countries, along with France. “This lower staffing in charge of the control of police forces probably reflects the reluctance of governments to provide means to agencies over which they do not have means of control when they are likely to question their political choices in the managing fonts or exposing them to public criticism,” the authors say.

In Germany, a handful of regional mediators

If Berlin seems to have long been spared from accusations of police violence (notably due to a strategy of de-escalation which is adopted by default), the doctrine could have evolved. In January, organizers of a protest against a coal mine denounced the behavior of law enforcement, saying police beat climate activists “unrestrainedly” during the rally.

However, in Germany, only three Länder (Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg) have introduced the post of police mediator, the Bürgerbeauftragte, in order to settle disputes between citizens and police officers. They have only a power of mediation and very few means – they suffer in particular from a lack of personnel, deplores the institute for German human rights in a comparative examination with five other European countries.

The mediator from Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s largest federal states, explains that she only has a team of five people to assist her in her task, which she describes as “a balancing act. while “the level of awareness of the office of the ombudsman, which has only been occupied since February 2017, can still be improved”.

The other regions rely on regional prosecutors and police services, which are responsible for investigations against police officers. When one of them is the subject of an investigation, it must nevertheless be opened in a department other than the one concerned. In the most serious cases, investigations are carried out by the federal criminal police office, the Bundeskriminalamt.

In Spain, the defender of the people and the return of democracy

Enshrined in the Spanish Constitution since 1981, the Defender of the People is responsible for “the defense of fundamental rights and freedoms”, a mission “intimately linked to the restoration of democracy in Spain”, according to jurist Alvaro Gil-Roblès. Benefiting from significant independence and protection – he cannot be arrested, detained, sanctioned or sentenced – the defender of the people can be seized free of charge by any citizen.

Its scope of action is wide: in addition to the defense of fundamental rights and civil liberties, it is responsible for overseeing the protection of children’s rights, and since 2009 the Spanish Parliament has also assigned to it the functions of the National Commission for prevention of the mechanism against torture (MNP) in prisons, detention centers for foreigners, geriatric centers or in psychiatric hospitals.

The defender of the people is elected by the Parliament, before which he makes a report each year, and appoints two deputies to help him in his task. In each autonomous community, a defender of the people with regional skills strengthens the national system. It only formulates recommendations following its investigations, but they are almost half the time followed by the administrations, according to the last annual report.

In Belgium, an authorized secret-defense committee

Since 1991, the Committee P, or Standing Committee for the Control of Police Services, has been responsible for reporting on the dysfunctions of the police forces in Belgium. Chaired by a magistrate, this committee is made up of five permanent members, assisted by an administrative department of around thirty people, and an investigation department comprising around fifty police officers or seconded civil servants.

The investigation service, recalls the ministerial directive of September 22, 2011, is given priority “investigations against members of the police services for crimes and offenses committed in the exercise of their police function (or having directly relating thereto) and constituting a violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens”.

With a “top secret” level security clearance that allows it to read classified documents, Committee P can also look into the follow-up of terrorist files. He thus made a damning report concerning the account of the failures of the Belgian police before the attacks of November 13, which left 130 dead in Paris and Saint-Denis.

While the terrorist cell had regrouped, prepared and armed in Brussels, “a lot of concrete information (…) was not always used optimally and did not allow the threat to be identified in time”, underlines the report, which has not been made public but which Le Monde had been able to consult. This freedom of tone gives an idea of ​​the independence enjoyed by Committee P.

In the United Kingdom, an agency focused on “users”

In the British context, where the use of force is limited to the strict minimum – even today, the police are not armed, good cooperation with the population being perceived as the best way to reduce crime – the control of the police is taken very seriously and has significant resources.

While most complaints are handled internally by police ethics departments, the most serious cases go back to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Competent in England and Wales, the IOPC can carry out arrests, searches or hear witnesses to transmit its conclusions to the justice system, which is then responsible for pronouncing the sanctions. It is one of the only agencies (along with its Dutch, Finnish and Estonian counterparts) that can set standards for the handling of complaints by police forces.

Its thousand agents are forensic scientists, sociologists, lawyers, all trained in criminology. Not to mention former police officers, but whose presence must not exceed a quarter of the organization’s workforce. Its director is never from the police and is not attached to the Secretary of State for the Interior – his appointment, however, depends on the government.

Focused on the “users” of the police, the IOPC publishes a significant proportion of the cases it receives on its website, as well as anonymized reports in its magazine Learning the Lessons, distributed to all the agents.

In Northern Ireland, at the heart of the reconciliation process

Founded in 2000, the office of the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland is responsible for taking complaints against officers – half of them eventually being investigated. As part of this, the agency can search police premises, seize documents and arrest the offending police officers. It then issues recommendations to correct malfunctions, propose disciplinary sanctions or refer to justice.

The Police Ombudsman takes into account complaints lodged for events that have taken place in the previous twelve months, but also for much older cases, linked to the conflict in Northern Ireland between 1968 and the peace agreement of 1998. Due to the sensitivity questions relating to the role of law enforcement and the British army during this period, investigations into their possible abuses are the prerogative of the office of the Police Ombudsman and its historical affairs department. In a February 2022 report, disputed by the Northern Irish police, the office thus points to the collusion of the latter and the army in a series of murders committed in the 1990s.

Appointed for a seven-year term by the Sovereign of the United Kingdom, the Police Ombudsman relies on a team of 150 people, including 120 investigators, which can include customs officers, the Ministry of Health, lawyers. It has a budget of around 10 million pounds sterling (11.3 million euros).