CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Peter A. J. Waddington and his colleagues state that:


“It is not ‘the state’ that knocks on the door in the middle of night, but a police officer – a corporeal being – acting on its behalf. Whatever influence the state exerts is communicated through and mediated by the police who are its agents.” [1]

3Police officers have the power to stop, check, search, interrogate, and even shoot at their fellow citizens, all on behalf of the state. To study police practice is therefore to analyze “the state as a regulatory body acting on deviance and more specifically the mechanisms which make certain persons or groups of people come to see themselves, and/or be seen, as ‘deviant’”. [2] The ethnographic approach to the state in its control procedures is therefore in accordance with a long tradition of research which understands the state “from the bottom up”, beginning with front-line agents who, on a day-to-day basis, not only apply its policies but above all make their own decisions. [3]

4Based on a comparative analysis of standard stop and check policies carried out by police services in Germany and France, we aim to contribute to this topic in two different ways. First of all, we will argue that the decision to ID check individuals allows us to identify styles of police action; in other words how police forces manage routine situations, communicate with the population (in a more or less formal, or more or less confrontational way) and, in broader terms, how they understand their action. [4] Furthermore, in seeking to move beyond “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to the state, we combine micro-level observation of police control practices with a more explanatory analysis, mindful of the meso-level (police organizations) and macro-level (police policies) conditions under which checks are carried out. [5]

5By control practices, here we refer to identity checks, interrogations, searches, or arrests carried out in public space. As a demonstration of the coercive capacity of the state, [6] they are also the source of recurring controversy. There have been debates concerning ‘stop and search’ procedures in Great Britain, which the Home Secretary addressed in 2013, [7] and ‘Terry stops’ [8] or roadside checks in the United States of America (we are reminded of the famous expression ‘driving while black’ [9]), as well as debate in France concerning identity checks. [10] Checks are a constant of police activity, to the extent that they are used by all forces, [11] but they can nonetheless vary in their frequency (from rare to systematic), their method (from a simple identity check to a check followed by an arrest), their conduct (from decent and respectful to brutal and violent) and their distribution among the general population (from a concentration on the “usual suspects” to more diverse targets), which requires us to understand why, when, and how these checks are performed and how they are regulated. Regarding the latter perspective, in the two countries studied here, the legal systems (article 78 of the Code of Penal Procedure in France, the Federal Code of Criminal Procedure and the police laws of different Länder in Germany) define in a general way the conditions under which checks are authorized. Whether used for investigative or preventative purposes for an individual suspected of having committed or preparing to commit an offence (judicial police check) or to prevent a breach of public order (administrative police check), checks need to be based on the idea of “reasonable suspicion” (or “concrete suspicion” in Germany). [12]

6In view of the flexibility of this legal framework, officers enjoy some leeway when deciding to undertake checks. Consequently, it is particularly interesting not only to look at what place ID checks have in police-citizen interactions, but also, and most importantly, the proportion of checks instigated by police officers. Police sociology has shown that officers make decisions based on so-called proactive cues, that is to say a “‘shared-recipe’ knowledge about whom to stop for what purpose in particular circumstances”, [13] or on a range of indicators that can vary according to the context, which combine the appearance and behavior of an individual. In analyzing these checks which we describe as “discretionary” – namely those which result from a broad definition of suspicion [14] – we are looking to establish the implicit understanding of police action which officers channel. To approach this empirically, we focus on three questions: 1. To what extent are ID checks used in interactions between the police and the general population? 2. Why do police officers use checks: that is to say, what are their implicit and explicit objectives, and which indicators do they consult? and 3. Who is checked: i.e., which segments of the public are at the greatest risk of being checked? The first two questions focus on the balance between the right to carry out checks (for legal reasons or to maintain public order) and protecting citizens’ private lives and freedom of movement. [15] The third point examines the possible disproportionate checking of certain segments of the population, notably visible minorities. [16] However, for lack of sufficient space, we will only approach the issue of “how” indirectly here (by “how”, we mean the public reaction to checks and the ways they are handled by the police), even if we will inevitably refer to it.

7To address these questions effectively, this article takes an approach which is doubly distinctive. First, it is a comparative study (a method rarely used in social science research on the police [17]), systematically examining the practices and logic behind checks carried out in Germany and France. While there exist numerous fruitful comparisons between Germany and France concerning employment policies, professional relations, or training, there is little available comparative knowledge on police issues, [18] although the combination of similarities and differences between the two countries suggests interesting perspectives. On one hand, Germany and France have similar judicial systems (the Napoleonic penal code), crimes (both from the point of view of acts and of concerns), and even similar institutional responses (increase in crime prevention, policies ranging from oppressive mandates to increasing proximity with the public). [19] Significantly, the few international police classifications that exist include Germany and France in the same continental police model, characterized by a centralized organization, broad responsibilities (including administrative police activity), and a legitimacy which is primarily state-facing. [20] On the other hand, the French centralizing tradition is in contradiction with German federal organization, [21] while urban tensions have resulted in very different levels of collective violence: whereas France has been hit by high profile riots, these are a very rare occurrence in Germany. [22]

8Conducted as part of the Franco-German project Police and adolescents in multi-ethnic societies (POLIS), [23] this research deals with four major cities (Lyon and Grenoble; Cologne and Mannheim). These cities all have large proportions of minorities in their populations: although it is difficult to measure the proportion in Grenoble and Lyon for legal reasons, [24] in Mannheim and Cologne, half of the population under the age of 18 is of immigrant origin, with Turkish as the largest group. [25] In Grenoble and Lyon, minority groups originate from North Africa and to a lesser degree from sub-Saharan Africa.

9This article also draws on a combined use of quantitative and qualitative methods, and aims to combine an understanding of the rationale for ID checks (and non-checks), based on an understanding of how police approach such checks, with measures of how frequently they occur. [26] Alongside a survey carried out with students in secondary schools, the research is based on around 800 hours of direct observation of police at work on the street, around 200 hours in each city. [27] In addition, 65 semi-structured interviews were conducted with police officers in Grenoble and Lyon and around 50 in Cologne (in the Land of North-Rhine Westphalia) and Mannheim (in the Land of Baden-Württemberg). In France, 293 police-population interactions were observed, compared to 247 in Germany. [28] This information allows us to combine quantitative data (by measuring the number of discretionary checks in the overall number of interactions and the different citizens targeted therein, and also by employing the survey of teenagers to measure the prevalence of checks) and qualitative data (by analyzing the values, norms, and objectives which guide the actions of police officers). From this perspective, direct observation is particularly useful for analyzing interactions in context: combined with informal discussion with police officers after checks, this method allows us to analyze (in context) what led to them. [29] In both countries, the observations were carried out during shifts and in quiet moments by observers who could have informal exchanges about the interactions occurring. In Mannheim and Cologne, observations were carried out with patrol teams (responsible for responding to emergency calls, called Streifendienstbeamte in Mannheim and Einsatzbewältigungsbeamte in Cologne), units in charge of police-youth relations (Jugendsachbearbeiter in Mannheim) and community police officers (Bezirksdienstbeamte in Cologne). In Grenoble and Lyon, a higher number of units were observed, to reflect the greater diversity of units operating in public spaces: the two best-known of these are the ordinary patrol units (“Police secours”, in uniform) and anti-crime squads (or BAC – Brigades Anti-Criminalité – in plain-clothes, with a mandate for proactive action against ongoing crime), but we also included specialized uniformed transport units, uniformed units in charge of certain high-crime areas with reinforced equipment (specialized ground units), as well as a myriad of other units, such as “neighbourhood security groups”, or “day units” (generally in uniform, with a more repressive mandate than the emergency squad). Finally, the two regional police forces had so-called “community” (or local) units or youth-relations units, which no longer existed at national level after the beginning of the 2000s and the end of community-based policing. [30]

10The rest of the article will be divided into three parts. First, we will analyse the rationale behind checks, by shedding light not only on police officers’ reasons for action, but also the reasons which lead them not to act. Next, we will examine the targets of checks more specifically, by questioning in particular the overrepresentation of minorities. These first two parts having shown notable differences (that German police officers carry out fewer checks and focus much less on minorities), in the third part we will consider the reasons for the contrast.

To check or not to check: police thinking and professional reflexivity

11In France, discretionary checks are a much-used procedure, which is only partly true in Germany. The advantages and disadvantages are evaluated differently by police officers from the two countries. The marked contrasts between the decision to carry out a check, or indeed not to, bring us back to the implicit definitions of police activity.

The rationales behind checks

12Based on the classification we established above concerning visible reasons for checks, we isolated discretionary checks. The differences are significant: in Grenoble and Lyon, more than one in four interactions are the result of a check undertaken by the police (27.3%, or 80 discretionary checks out of 293 interactions), while the proportion is one in eight in Cologne and Mannheim (12.6%, 31 discretionary checks out of 247 interactions). This difference means we need to ask questions about the nature of these interactions and the dynamic of the situations if we are to detect potential differences of approach between French and German police. The checks (whether these are simple identity checks or checks accompanied by a pat-down) can serve three types of objective: crime fighting, asserting authority, and collecting information. [31]

Table 1

Proportion of discretionary checks

NProportion of discretionary checks (%)

Proportion of discretionary checks

Source: POLIS survey, direct observation.

The fight against crime

13First, checks can be seen as a means of stopping individuals who are preparing to commit an offence. This is classic logic: checks are consistent with the fight against crime. This is a dimension which is particularly significant among French police officers (65 cases out of the 80 observed): behavior judged to be unusual (as diverse as not hurrying, looking down), the time of day, clothing, and skin color (see below) all represent crucial factors, which often combine to trigger a check.


I[nteraction] 12 (Grenoble): “A young North African about sixteen years old is walking alone down the road, near to a housing complex at about 7pm (in February). The evening was particularly quiet until then. The police officers decided to check him. He hasn’t got his papers with him; they take him to his home to verify his identity. In the informal debrief after the interaction, the officers believed that he might be transporting stolen goods; the quietness of the evening and the officers’ boredom created the backdrop for the intervention.” [32]


I 22 (Grenoble): “The police officers see two young men on a scooter, with a large bag. After a quick discussion, they think it could be connected to drugs. They decide to stop the youths and search them.”

16Locale is important: we were in a Grenoble suburb, Fontaine, near a large area of social housing known as being an important hub in the sale of narcotics. In interaction 22, the issue of drugs is crucial, as the police officers in question are clearly looking to arrest individuals involved one way or another in trafficking. [33] In certain cases, a maximalist notion of checks is applied in connection with drugs: any young person on foot near a dealing zone is likely to become a potential target, which is just what interaction 91 illustrates in its absurdity.


I 91 (Lyon): “Two North Africans in their twenties, dressed in summer clothes come towards us to ask directions to Part-Dieu [the main train station and shopping center in Lyon]. ‘Hey, where are you from?’ [34] the police officer who was asked the question replies. The young person is not really surprised and responds: ‘I’m Moroccan’. The police officer: ‘Oh yeah? Cool! Got any shit?’ ‘No’, the young man replies. ‘Do you two have your papers on you? I’ll answer your question after.’ ‘Yes’, the young men reply. ‘Well, I want to see them.’ They come from Toulon and have come to see a friend in Lyon. The officer looks at their ID cards and hands them back. ‘It’s your lucky day, no pat down. The station’s over there.’ Everyone says goodbye in a polite and happy way.”

18German police officers also act according to the logic of the fight against drugs and, just like their French colleagues, are prone to make cognitive connections between age, place, type of clothing (and even skin color):


I 58 (Mannheim): “The officers decide to check the youths wandering in the road because of their clothing (untidy street wear) which suggests to them (after an informal discussion with the observer) that drugs have been taken.”

20Although interventions similar to the ones in Grenoble and Lyon also take place in Cologne or Mannheim, there are many fewer such interventions in German cities. This is explained by the units’ rationale for action. Officers from public relations units almost never proceed with checks with a crime fighting objective, favoring more informal contact where checks rarely take place. Patrol agents, for their part, primarily deal with emergency calls from citizens and rarely proceed with proactive checks, because they do not have the time and do not consider it as at the heart of their mission. This is a central element which we will come back to.

Asserting authority on the street

21The second reason corresponds to the desire to assert their authority on the street. Discretionary checks are therefore aimed at confirming the idea of a strong presence in public areas, and showing that “we are not afraid of them, we are in charge”, as a French police officer put it to us. It is thus a means of maintaining superiority in relation to their clients, by reminding them through repeated checks that the police possess enforcement powers which they can use at will. [35] These checks are most often carried out in the absence of real security, investigative or identification needs, and on individuals already known to the police:


I 139 (Grenoble): “It is 8.30pm and the three officers decide to head towards S. Road to see if a group of ‘merdeux’ (to use their term) who have a habit of hanging around near an estate are there and to check them if need be. On the spot, three North Africans of around 18, 24, and 28 years respectively, are gathered at the foot of a block of flats. One of them, the 24-year-old, has a scooter in bad condition and without a number plate, with the engine running. The officers carry out their checks. The young man is a bit annoyed by the checks. ‘Is this for noise?’ he asks. ‘No, no we were just passing’, one of the officers replies. ‘Oh, so on the off chance’, the young man responds. ‘Yeah, that’s it, always on the off chance’, the 18-year-old of the group jokes.”

23The idea of commanding respect comes into play when there is a form of defiance or provocation: checks are made so as not to lose face and to show that there is always a come-back. The goal is to assert the police officers’ authority by exercising their coercive powers, not in a routine way as in the previous example, but on this occasion to respond to specific behavior perceived to be disrespectful, and to show that the police cannot be belittled with impunity. Another similar situation was observed in an urban area of Lyon:


I 174 (Lyon): “We entered the estate on foot. A young North African of 16-17 years old is at the bottom of a tower block, in discussion with another young person of the same profile, at the window of an apartment on the second floor. The one in the road calls out: ‘There’s cops coming. The Asian and the blond one!’ He leaves in the opposite direction to us. The officers pick up the pace and catch up with him. ‘Is it me you called the Asian? Got your papers?’ The youth does not have them and clearly shows that it is not important to him. He has a perpetual smirk. The Asian officer says to him: ‘You know we can take you to the precinct to verify your identity?’”

25In these kinds of situations, which we only observed in France, the checks are carried out on the basis of “disciplinary rationale” [36] aimed at those who do not accept the police definition of the situation. [37] The person is immobilized for several minutes, perhaps searched in front of others, and may be questioned in an intrusive way.

Collecting information

26The third reason is to collect information. In France identity checks carried out in (or near) tower block lobbies are particularly symbolic: their goal is to collect information, which is then cross referenced with that held by certain partners (city departments, landlords) to identify the profiles of frequent occupants of the lobbies. The motivation for these checks stems in large part from an inter-organizational dynamic: police officers participate in working groups representing a multiplicity of services (from legal services to social workers) in which information is shared according to rules set internally by the groups.

27In Germany, however, collecting information on young people is based on a particular approach, especially among local police unit agents. They generally instigate a check when they spot young people they do not personally know. In this case, they approach the young people, not to then share their information with partners, but to make first contact with them:


“When I do not know a group of young people and they do not seem to be local to the area, I go up to them, speak to them in a friendly way, ask them where they are going, what they are doing, and depending on their reactions, I might identity check them.”
(Community police officer, Cologne)

29In Cologne, twice a week (on so-called “prevention days”), community police officers have to increase the frequency of their checks, insofar as their supervisors make carrying out identity checks their priority, essentially to gather information on the young people they check. In this respect, these “prevention days” reveal both administrative control (directing community police services by asking them to carry out certain tasks) and social control (collecting information on individuals).

30Crime control, the assertion of authority, and the collection of information are all mobilized by the different police services, but to varying degrees. If there are observable differences in approach (notably the use of checks by community police in Cologne for information purposes and in Lyon in order to assert authority), the main contrasts are to be seen in checks motivated by crime prevention, which are numerous in France (where they account for 65 out of 80 discretionary checks), but rare in Germany (7 out of 31 checks).

Avoiding checks

31The issue of checks can also be approached from another angle, namely when police officers avoid going as far as checks, whether because they know the people in question, or because they foresee the negative consequences of a check. The first situation reveals a mutual understanding between police and public; the second a reflexivity on the part of police officers about their own practices.

Mutual understanding and avoiding checks

32In the first situation checks are rendered useless by the simple fact that the police officers know the individuals, and more specifically the young people. In Lyon, for example, when the officers were looking for persons suspected of burglary, they prepared to check two people that matched the approximate description of the suspects, before realizing that they knew these individuals and that they did not fit the profile of criminals. The decision not to carry out a check resulted from local and inter-individual knowledge.

33In the two French cities, situations of this type only occurred twice, whereas in Germany they occurred fifteen times. While the beginning of an interaction may suggest that a check is imminent, in the end the police officers do not resort to it:


“A young person takes off his hood when a police officer turns his flashlight towards him, they know each other” (I 10, Cologne); “The men are drinking alcohol in front of the house and are listening to music from a car stereo, the officers and the men exchange words, they know each other” (I 16 Cologne); “The officers and the young people have a discussion about police work, they know each other” (I 21, Cologne); “The young man is talking to his friends, the officer who enters into contact with him knows him” (I 24, Cologne).

35While these different situations suggest that checks might be limited by inter-individual knowledge between police agents and the public (in this case primarily young people), we must remember that each of these interactions is primarily undertaken by community police officers and not patrol officers, and systematically takes on a cooperative, even cordial aspect.

36Knowing one another does not necessarily imply an absence of checks. In Grenoble, on the contrary, it is the fact that a person is known for never carrying his identity card that motivates the check:


I 234 (Grenoble): “A young North African is known for never having his identity card on him. It is for this reason that the agents, who know him from elsewhere, decide to do a check. The officers teach him a lesson… His brothers swear he will have it with him next time.”

38In this interaction, the officers could have taken him back to his home or back to the police station so he could prove his identity, but they carry out a check instead precisely to remind him of the necessity of carrying his identity card with him; according to them, carrying an identity card is a duty which must always be observed.

Police reflexivity and adverse effects of checks

39In the second situation, the police officers do not resort to checks because they consider that the disadvantages in terms of police efficiency outweigh the advantages in terms of their relationship with young people. In France this attitude is rare, but may be expressed by experienced police officers who seek to avoid checks because they deem them counter-productive. During a session, a sergeant in charge of a specialized ground unit in a difficult area of an urban part of Lyon confided that:


“In an estate like this, a zero-tolerance policy is impossible, as it would become war between the police and the young people. You have to know when to dole it out, and that the most important thing is to make yourself respected, to establish a mutual respect. In eight months we’ve managed to establish ourselves in the area, we know everyone, or almost everyone, and everyone knows us and how we work.”

41The rest of the session would confirm that the unit was working on limiting checks to situations marked by suspicious behavior (young people running away on seeing the police go by) or demonstrating an infringement of public order (insulting a police officer), and avoided controlling young people they already knew.

42The practice of avoiding checks is clearly more frequent among German officers. They show a great deal of prudence in the use of checks, which they use depending on the way the interaction plays out. The check is therefore used depending on the development of the relationship between the speakers. [38]


“When I see a group of young people up to something, it’s something I note down. When this happens in my area for example, I go towards them in a normal way and talk to them about ordinary, day to day things, ‘What are you doing and how are you and where are you from’, if I don’t know them personally. And through the resulting dialogue, if I don’t know them, I can see if it is useful to check them or not.”
(Community officer, Cologne)

44While the previous quote reveals a practice shared among agents in community policing units, we can also recognize similar practices on the part of patrol officers, who may seek to draw on the expertise of their more experienced colleagues or that of their community police colleagues:


“As long as they hang around the same streets where they grew up and they hang around there every day, all the time, I have no need to check them. I can say to people, ‘Listen, he looks like this’, I say to my older colleagues, community officers, ‘He looks like this and I think he’s from Turkey, he always wears these kinds of clothes, who is he?’ I get the information. I don’t have to make a big deal of it.”
(Patrol officer, Cologne)

46The attitudes held are susceptible to variation depending on the unit, the nature of their work, and the prevailing view of that work. Community police officers in Cologne have an interactional view of their work: they have to be accepted by young people in order to get information, and to do this they adapt their approach to different interactions. Patrol officers have a relationship which is clearly more distant, but certain among them try to avoid unnecessary checks, by attempting to obtain information by other means. The fact that they primarily respond to emergency calls also reduces the opportunity for discretionary checks.

47In France, reflexive attitudes on the unwanted effects of checks are overall few and far between. Interaction 91 (see above) is emblematic of situations where the negative effects of identity checks are not internalized by agents. In certain cases, the checks may take on a routine nature, without the officers considering the negative effects of their action. In interaction 122, for example, officers rapidly came to the decision to carry out a check at Part-Dieu, although there was no suspicious behavior by the individuals who were checked. When the officer realized that the suspects were actually group leaders accompanying children, they decided to give them a lecture on the necessity of carrying identity cards (instead of requiring them to prove their identity).

48Although in both countries police officers express frustration about their “constantly defied authority” – a key component of police culture – they rarely take into account, especially in France, how much resentment repeated checks can create, nor of the low success rate of discretionary checks (in terms of the number of offenses discovered or perpetrators apprehended). The vast majority of French police officers feel that checks are part of their prerogative and that opposition to checks results from factors exogenous to their activity (political opposition, for example, or the irritation of young delinquents, etc.). In Germany, checking powers are used more flexibly according to the situation (notably workload and the behavior of the persons concerned) and the negative consequences of checking are more readily considered by the agents.

Disproportionate checking of minorities? Comparing national patterns

49The second aspect of our research concerns the targets of discretionary checks, and in particular the potential over-representation of young men [39] from minority groups. Obviously, one of the questions asked is about the discriminatory practices noted in the study, [40] and how to measure them. Qualitative studies have difficulties in robustly demonstrating discrimination by the police because of the specific material they collect, which is composed primarily of interviews and does not allow for potential racial profiling to be objectified. [41] Here, we propose combining three sources: quantified interactions (Table 2), the results of the survey on teenagers (Figure 1), and finally the qualitative elements taken from the direct observations. The first two techniques allow us to identify the processes of disproportionate checking, and the second is more useful as we attempt to identify explanatory elements. On this last point, we will return in particular to the question of links between racism and discriminatory practices.

Focus or balance? National contrasts

50The data collected during the direct observation sessions highlight that discretionary checks make up a much larger proportion of interactions with visible minorities [42] (31.2%) than with white people (14.1%) in France, whereas in Germany, proportions of checks per 100 people are more equal between the majority population (12.2%) and visible minorities (12.25%) (see Table 2).

Table 2

Distribution of discretionary checks (based on appearance)

NProportion of discretionary checks in total number of interactions (%)
Apparently white7114.1
Visible minorities20531.2
Mixed groups1735.3
Apparently white11512.2
Visible minorities12012.5
Mixed groups1020

Distribution of discretionary checks (based on appearance)

51These results coincide with those of the survey carried out in secondary schools, the results of which are shown in Figure 1, where the prevalence rate of discretionary checks over the last twelve months is less than 30% for Germany regardless of the group they belong to, while in France the rate is 21.6% for young people of French origin and 36.7% for young people of African origin. If we look at the profiles of the young people most frequently the subject of checks (five times or more during the last year), young people of African origin have a three times higher representation (17% versus 5%), while no major difference can be seen in German cities.

Figure 1

Prevalence of checks initiated by police (Germany on the left, France on the right)

Figure 1

Prevalence of checks initiated by police (Germany on the left, France on the right)

Source: POLIS survey, boys only (N=3,460 for Germany, N=6,354 for France).

52Even if we cannot compare these results with the available population (those present in the area at the time of the check), they show regular, substantial differences. These conclusions support those of existing studies which, on the basis of quantitative sets, tend to establish discriminatory practices on the part of French police officers. [43] More so in France than in Germany, the ethnic element constitutes one of the factors associated with discretionary checks on the part of the police; the “police quarry” (gibier du police) [44] consists of young North African or black men dressed in street clothes, and this is the phenomenon which we seek to understand. In particular, the disparities revealed here go hand in hand – as we will see – with particular ways of thinking by the police.

Understanding the reasons for discrimination

53To understand what might generate disproportionate checking, it is useful to look to police logic. From this point of view, after having gained the confidence of the agents, direct and prolonged observation allowed us to get closer to this situational logic. It should be noted in this respect that categories based on appearance are key for officers and that, within this, categories based on ethnic background are recurrent. [45] Familiar designations of color (“Blacks”), origin (“Arabs”) or even ethnicity (“Roma”), often with a pejorative connotation (in discussions in Germany, Blacks may be referred to as “tête de nègre”, the equivalent of “golliwogs”; in France Arabs become des “bougnoules”, another similarly racist slur for people of North African descent) are pervasive in the way that the police approach interactions.

54The simple explanation for these discriminatory practices is that they result from police racism, which we know is traditionally seen as one of the main ingredients of police culture. [46] This point of view has since been qualified, particularly as a result of ethnographic work which has brought to light the difference between the (openly racist) patterns of speech used by certain police officers when they are alone together, and the much more professional behavior used in interacting with minorities. [47] This difference has led to a refinement of the hypothesis on police discrimination, by distinguishing racism from discrimination: a racist police officer does not necessarily discriminate, and discriminatory practices do not necessarily stem from racist stereotypes. These are distinctions introduced by Michael Banton, [48] and taken up and extended by Robert Reiner, [49] who offers without doubt the best account of the distinction: “categorical” designates discriminatory practices based purely on negative stereotypes regarding individual appearance, while “statistical” discrimination corresponds to treating people differently based on a logic which defines them as being more likely to commit certain offenses. In what follows we offer a reconsideration of these two configurations.

Stereotypes and probabilistic discrimination

55The first definition consists of a link between stereotype, suspicion, and checks, on the basis of statistical reasoning. Directing checks towards minorities (or certain minorities), means seeking greater efficiency, based on a belief in their greater propensity for committing crimes. Thus certain criminal practices are associated with specific ethnic categories.


I 96 (Lyon): “A dated van passes us in the G. neighborhood. The driver seems to be dark-skinned. ‘What’s the driver?’ the deputy sergeant asks. ‘I think it’s a Pakistani’, is the sergeant’s retort. ‘It’d be more interesting if he was a gypsy’, the deputy replies. We follow the van a few dozen meters and stop it at the lights. The driver is in reality a North African of about twenty-two in jeans and t-shirt, his passenger a European of the same age.”

57There is no sign of hostility shown before, during, or after the interaction (which is the case, moreover, for the rest of the session); the police reasoning is first and foremost based on the fact that “Gypsies” use vehicles to transport stolen goods. [50] In the same way, one might also cite the checks agents carry out on individuals they believe not to have papers, on the basis of a number of physical clues which distinguish them from settled immigrants (North African people that are “particularly tanned” during a less sunny time of year, for example, a tan which results from having arrived only recently). Police officers often base their reasoning on a body of proof: phenotypical categorization is combined with the clothes worn and how self-assured the individual appears in public space.

58The connection between stereotypes, suspicion, and checks differs, however, between the two countries. In France, an idea shared among many police officers we met is the following syllogism: young people of minority origin are more often criminals; therefore, it is rational to check them. This belief is expressed recurrently and with varying degrees of emphasis.


“If you say to a child, you have ten sweets, you have eight black sweets and two white sweets but out of the eight sweets seven are sweet and one is salty, and with the white sweets you have one sweet and one salty, the kid will choose a black one. I’m saying that a police officer has some sense, he knows that the more he picks on this immigrant population, the more he’ll win. A winner every time. Every time you win.”
(Sergeant, Lyon)


“It’s… it’s… It’s true to say that… most reported infractions or the individuals you’re going to check have… immigrant backgrounds.”
(Deputy Sergeant, community police group, Lyon)

61In Germany they seem to have a more differentiated idea of suspicion, not primarily shaped by the ethnic dimension. Aside from the fact that German officers undertake ID checks less often than their French counterparts (and for reasons which are less often connected to criminality), they also do not identify suspicion of criminal practice so closely with the appearance of individuals, even if such situations can arise:


I 28 (Cologne): “The officers stop a car driven by a Roma woman and check it. They justify the stop by the fact that they thought the children in the back were not wearing seatbelts, which is not the case.”

63In this last case, not wearing a seatbelt is only a pretext for carrying out a check, based on the driver’s appearance. Police officers tend to associate suspicion with visible attributes such as clothing style or even just being in a certain area. “Urban” clothing styles (street wear, hip hop) are thus spontaneously connected to drug trafficking activities. Interestingly, agents attach great importance to clothing style, using criteria indexed to a person’s social status. As an agent confided to us during a session:


“I also decide depending on whether they are well dressed – that they come from a good family – or whether they’re dressed like youths with nothing to do.”

65In contrast with research funded by the Open Society for France, [51] clothing is not literally described here as a “racial variable”, as clothing styles are underpinned less by ethnicity than by social disadvantage. Other criteria, such as lifestyle and presence in certain areas are also considered as clues, as a German police agent testifies:


“When we patrol the streets for identity checks, we choose areas which are already known as drug-dealing areas.”

67The same approach is also applied to other criminal acts such as graffiti or vandalism.

Checks and categorical discrimination

68The second situation, rarely observed, is that of an ID check motivated by stereotypes and an implicit hostility towards minorities. In France, certain checks carried out on Roma people seem to follow this logic, officers often expressing irony towards these populations, especially by mocking their inability to explain themselves and their inactivity. During our observations, a roadside check carried out in Grenoble on a young North African clearly displayed this logic. One winter evening near Grenoble, a police officer chose to check a damaged car. The check was carried out in a courteous and peaceful manner. The officer who decided on the check chose not to fine the driver, despite a minor Highway Code infraction. Questioned informally by the observer on the reasons for the check, he replied:


“This car, well I chose it because I saw it was damaged and then I saw the hand of Fatima (attached to the rear-view mirror), that tells me it’s a North African, they often put them up so the car doesn’t break down… And often these North Africans, they don’t have their papers in order… So, it’s useful anyway…”

70Here, the officer mixes probabilistic logic (more chances of obtaining a result) with categorical logic (punishing a negatively regarded group). He recognized having targeted the car on the basis of stereotypes associated with negative judgements of a group (“They often don’t have their papers in order” and “Muslims put the hand of Fatima on their rear-view mirror in order to avoid their car breaking down”).

71It should be emphasized, however, that in the observations we carried out there was no other instance of “categorical” reasoning which was as clear. From this point of view, while Didier Fassin is right to remind us that it is difficult to imagine that “cognitive and emotional activities have no influence on social practices”, [52] at the same time we should not overestimate the importance of hostile ethnic stereotypes on behavior: police targets are mainly chosen on the basis of probabilistic discrimination. Police officers believe in the rationality of checks for detecting crimes and use stereotypical reasoning.

72These differentiated checking practices are embedded in the hostile relationships maintained between the police and certain sections of visible minorities, [53] which we find more frequently in France than in Germany. In France these interactions translate, symbolically, the cultural and political gulf which separates young people with a minority background and police officers; what sociologist Marwan Mohammed calls a “perverse familiarity” (familiarité perverse). [54] While officers are inclined to insist on the legalistic (“We are only applying the law”) and republican dimensions (“We do not see races, only people”) of their activity, young people of immigrant backgrounds point out the bias and discrimination which they believe they suffer. [55] In response to the moral indignation of officers when faced with young people denying their own French citizenship (many officers talk in their interviews – in condemnatory terms – about the fact that young French people from immigrant backgrounds tell them “I’m not French. I’m Algerian”), we see the resentment of young people believing themselves to be the victims of injustice, which constitutes for them a denial of citizenship. [56] This situation presents itself as a vicious circle: the “republican” discourse of the officers, quick to remind these young people that they are French first and foremost, could fuel their defiance. In Germany, it is instead indifference and distance which develops between police and young people from visible minorities. Despite changes in the law on acquiring nationality, [57] many officers we met continue to see members of minorities as foreigners, independent of their access to formal citizenship, without this becoming a matter of conflict. The issue of identity checks has not become a focal point in the conflicts between young people of immigrant backgrounds and police forces. [58]

From police practices to political and organizational contexts

73After reporting the main findings from our analysis, we will attempt to propose an explanatory framework. First, the consistency and homogeneity of national values, norms, and practices should not be exaggerated. While community police agents in Cologne avoid checks most of the time and have an individual knowledge of young people, most patrol agents don’t have this knowledge at their disposal and many of them show an inclination towards undertaking checks in a reactive way. In France, certain experienced agents demonstrate a great deal of care in the use of checks, unlike many of their colleagues who take little account of their collateral effects. Our research tends to support the idea that two different professional styles exist: in France a more proactive checking style prevails, driven by the fight against crime, whereas in Germany a more reactive and informal logic dominates. In Lyon and Grenoble, identity checks are seen as a way of exercising power, and as a way of meeting several objectives, while their negative effects on the public are little taken into account, contrary to the approach in Mannheim and Cologne. Interactions in France are also characterized by a heavy over-representation of minorities compared to the majority population, while proportions are much more balanced in Germany. Direct observation, informal interviews with police officers and statistical data suggest that a link exists between ethnic stereotypes, creation of suspicion, and the carrying out of checks, whereas in Germany police consider indicators other than visible minority status. German police are close to what James Q. Wilson [59] calls the “order maintenance” style: their first concern is to maintain social order (public calm) in the community, and value is attributed to operational autonomy and informality. For example, officers seek to gather information by other methods rather than using checks to obtain information on individuals. The style of French policing is more legalistic: they give priority to applying the rule of law – particularly in relation to their mandate of crime-fighting – and interpersonal relationships are more limited. [60]

74By focusing on the practice of checks, we are situating ourselves on the micro level of agent behavior, and must now turn to the extrapolation of more general explanations, by combining these results with the more meso- (organizational) and macro-level elements (public policies). The explanation of observed differences leads us to abandon the idea of a strict approach in terms of relations of monocausality and to consider instead the combined effect of a set of factors (political, organizational, and professional) embedded in layers of social relations. Although recent police policy offers a partial explanation, it exaggerates the structural tendencies at work in both countries.

75First, these differences are found in recent policies carried out in the two countries. In France, the priority given to the “fight against criminality”, the “culture of performance”, and the “policy of results” between 2002 and 2012 has encouraged proactive practice, with a higher number of checks being associated with greater efficiency in the fight against crime, [61] while in the two Länder, we observe no equivalent policy which values interrogations as the centerpiece of the work of police on the street. In Cologne and Mannheim, officers have little incentive to carry out checks in order to conduct interrogations and thus meet objectives on bringing individuals to justice. In Grenoble and Lyon, although not omnipresent, this logic constitutes a background context for action, with many agents complaining on their breaks of the perverse effects of the “race for numbers”. [62] Similarly, the disappearance of community policing in France constitutes a major difference with the two German Länder.

76However, the influence of these recent policy variables should not be exaggerated; the reasons are also structural, combining three factors: training, organizational direction, and professional routines and ethos. “Relations with the public” are an important component of training policies in the two Länder and the tenets of different religions and cultures are taught, while in France the relationship with the public is not a central issue, and is neither included in initial training, nor in in-service training. Significantly, when we interviewed officers about their training in public relations, they talked about professional intervention techniques (les gestes et techniques professionnels d’intervention (GTPI)), which are self-defense techniques.

77These differences must also be understood in terms of the organizational context: the checks carried out during our period of observation [63] were not the subject of internal questions. In France, their numbers are not recorded, there is no guide on how to carry them out (outside of the penal code and a few lines in the code of ethics), nor is it an issue the agents discuss with middle management. During our observations, checks were never the subject of debriefing between the agents and their supervisors. The organization of police units also differs: the rarity of plain clothes officers with an anti-crime mandate in Germany [64] marks a notable difference with the French anti-crime squads (BAC), for whom these checks are strongly connected to the fight against crime. [65] Police missions in both countries – and the organizational structure which translates these priorities – thus indirectly affect checking policies.

78Finally, these styles are closely intertwined with the relatively autonomous professional ethos [66] of the policies established. The profile of “the hunter” (or the “new centurion” in the crusade against crime) [67] is less prevalent in Germany than it is in France, while the idea that the police officer is “your friend and aide” (dein Freund und Helfer) permeates the representations of both German police and public. [68] In France the them/us separation is much more a structuring factor in the way in which police officers talk about their relationship with the public in general, the narrative of events involving defiance of the police is more commonly shared, [69] in a context where relations between the police and the public seem much more tense.

79These four factors (police policy, training, organizational direction, professional ethos) support a complementary relationship: for example, training contributes to forging a professional ethos oriented to varying degrees towards an interactional view of the job, an ethos which itself influences the acceptable organizational policies at the heart of the police service. From this point of view, the effects of the so-called “independent” variables are not isolated: they direct the practice of checks on the basis of the interrelations between them.

80* * *

81At the crossroads between judicial logic and public order, checking practices bring priority targets and the orientation of police work into focus. It is therefore crucial to understand precisely how, when, where, and on whom checking processes – ordinary police practices – are accomplished. In urban societies which are similar in many ways (socio-urban inequalities, proportion of immigrant population, urban security issues, etc.), it is essential to know if checks by law enforcement are also used in similar ways. Based on our Franco-German comparison, we have made three contributions to this question.

82First, we have identified what we will call, after James Q. Wilson, [70] styles of policing; that is to say, relatively consistent ways of doing things, choices of priorities, and targets. The importance of checks in interactions in France is embodied in a police force which situates itself in a position of control (a “legalistic” style as Wilson would say) and thus resorts to a coercive tool, while police in Cologne and Mannheim more often find themselves in situations where they are responding to the population’s demands and where they have to settle conflicts between different parties (the “order maintenance” style as Wilson would put it).

83Such results, based on a large-scale ethnographic research project that allows for quantification of contacts, address a gap in knowledge when it comes to the comparative analysis of the police. The few comparative works available too readily confine themselves to constructing models which have little connection to administrative and professional realities, [71] or are too centered on the few formal institutional variables, [72] tendencies which can be accounted for by the inherent difficulties of any comparative research undertaken on police issues. Yet, to use only this example, ID check law diverges only minimally between Germany and France. Comparing tacit knowledge, reasons for action or understandings that in the profession “go without saying” thus constitutes a promising avenue, building on the tradition of ethnographic works that seek to analyze the state from the bottom up. [73] Linking micro dimensions (practices) to the more meso- and macro-level variables (organizational direction, professional sub-cultures, police policies, training) represents a promising project for the comparative analysis of not only state administrations but also, more generally, public organizations. On the one hand, work such as this which seeks to reproduce professional understandings allows us to reintegrate multiple professional and administrative layers into comparative analyses, which otherwise run the risk of being centered only on elites, discourses, and programs of action. On the other hand, international comparison allows us to relate observations of practice to the political and institutional conditions in which these activities are carried out.

84Finally, a comparative analysis such as this has the merit of denaturalizing practices considered universal. The Franco-German comparison allows us to show that ID checking practices are undeniably an invariable element of police practice, but their use can vary as a function of professional and political contexts. It also highlights that confrontations between police and minorities are not self-evident in contemporary society. These results should be seen in the context of other international studies, which all tend to show that the level of confidence in the police is higher in Germany than in France, and that the perception of the existence of unfair treatment or even experience of violent treatment is also not in France’s favor. [74] Converging bodies of work have elsewhere revealed that checks seen as unfair, discriminatory, and excessive can damage confidence in institutions and become sources of conflict between the police and certain segments of the population. [75] In combination, these results tend to challenge the prevailing direction in France: by increasing the number of checks, French police officers put themselves in situations where distrustful and divisive attitudes are nurtured, and by doing this, they contribute to weakening the social legitimacy of the police, without gaining a measurable reduction in criminality. [76]


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    Peter A. J. Waddington et al., “Singing the same tune? International continuities and discontinuities in how police talk about using force”, Crime, Law and Social Change, 52(2), 2009, 111-38 (113).
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    Mathilde Darley, Jérémie Gauthier, Eddie Hartmann, and Gwénaëlle Mainsant, “Présentation du dossier”, in “L’État au prisme du contrôle des déviances: plaidoyer pour une approche ethnographique”, Déviance et Société, 34(2), 2010, 145-7 (146); Pierre Favre, “Quand la police fabrique l’ordre social: un en deçà des politiques publiques de la police?”, Revue française de science politique, 59(6), 2009, 1231-48 (1235).
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    For example, Didier Fassin writes: “It’s not enough for these agents to apply state policy; they carry it out; they are the state”. Didier Fassin et al., Juger, réprimer, accompagner (Paris: Seuil, 2013), 17.
  • [4]
    James Q. Wilson, Varieties of Police Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973); William K. Muir, The Police. Streetcorner Politicians (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1977); Mike Hough, “Procedural justice and professional policing in times of austerity”, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(2), 2013, 181-97.
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    Cf. Vincent Dubois, “Ethnographier l’action publique: les transformations de l’État social au prisme de l’enquête de terrain”, Gouvernement et action publique, 1(1), 2012, 83-101.
  • [6]
    Leanne Weber and Ben Bowling, “Stop and search in a global context: Introduction”, Policing & Society, 21(4), 2011, 353-6.
  • [7]
    The Home Secretary has repeatedly criticized the detrimental effects on minorities of stop and search powers as well as their low hit rate. She commissioned a number of evaluations of the use of stop and search from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), the tone of which was, to say the least, critical (cf. especially HMIC, Stop and Search Powers 2. Are the Police Using them Effectively and Fairly?, 2015).
  • [8]
    A name derived from a 1968 Supreme Court ruling (Terry versus Ohio) which defined the remit within which proactive checks can be carried out on a public highway, in circumstances where there was a basis for reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to take place (“is afoot”). The use of Terry stops has generated wide debate around the so-called “new policing” strategy of American police (Phillip B. Heymann, “The new policing”, Fordham Urban Law Journal, 28(2), 2000, 407-56).
  • [9]
    The term was promoted by civil rights leaders (American Civil Liberties Union, Driving while Black, 1999), after several court decisions which condemned ethnic biases in roadside checks.
  • [10]
    The French state was condemned for gross misconduct by the Paris Court of Appeal in June 2015 for five cases of “unjustified” and “discriminatory” checks; the decision came up for appeal in the Cassation Courts in October 2015.
  • [11]
    Weber and Bowling, “Stop and search”.
  • [12]
    In both countries, police officers, if approved by the prosecutor (procureur), are also authorized in certain sectors to check any individual regardless of whether their behaviour is suspicious or not: these are areas which may be designated by the prosecutor in France (article 78.2 of the Code of Penal Procedure) or dangerous areas (gefährliche Orte) in Germany.
  • [13]
    Richard Ericson, Reproducing Order. A Study of Police Patrol Work (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 86.
  • [14]
    We will refer to discretionary checks (or those resulting from individual initiative) when the latter are carried out based on criteria external to a person’s potentially criminal behavior: an individual in a location where they are apparently a stranger, the general look of a car, clothing style, or even a person’s attitude (provocative and ironic, for example).
  • [15]
    See in particular the special issue edited by Ben Bowling and Leanne Weber (eds), in “Stop and search in a global context”, Policing & Society, 21(4), 2011, 353-488.
  • [16]
    Abundant literature exists on this subject: see, for England, Ben Bowling and Coretta Phillips, “Disproportionate and discriminatory: reviewing the evidence on police stop and search”, Modern Law Review, 70(6), 2007, 936-61; for the United States, the overview by Ronald Weitzer, “Police race relations”, and Rod K. Brunson and Jacinta M. Gau, “Race, place and policing the inner-city”, in Michael D. Reisig and Robert J. Kane (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Police and Policing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 339-61 and 362-82.
  • [17]
    Despite promising research by Michael Banton (The Policeman in the Community (New York: Basic Books, 1964)) and David Bayley (Forces of Order. Policing Modern Japan (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978)), there are few truly comparative studies. However, see also works by Damien Cassan (“Une ethnographie de l’intégration professionnelle du gardien de la paix et du police constable”, Déviance et Société, 35(3), 2011, 361-83) and Jérémie Gauthier (in particular, “Origines contrôlées: polices et minorités en France et en Allemagne”, Sociétés contemporaines, 97, 2015, 101-27).
  • [18]
    However, see J. Gauthier, “Origines contrôlées”.
  • [19]
    Fabien Jobard and Axel Groenemeyer, “Déviances et modalités de contrôle: le réalisme sociologique de la comparaison franco-allemande”, Déviance et Société, 29(3), 2005, 235-41.
  • [20]
    Rob Y. Mawby, “Models of policing”, in Tim Newburn (ed.), Handbook of Policing (Cullompton: Willan, 2008), 17-46.
  • [21]
    David H. Bayley, Patterns of Policing (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985).
  • [22]
    Dietmach Loch, “Why is there no urban unrest in Germany? Youth of immigrant descent in France and Germany between (absence of) protest and urban policy”, Swiss Journal of Sociology, 34(2), 2008, 281-306.
  • [23]
    The Police and Adolescents in Multi-Ethnic Societies project (POLIS) is funded by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (project ANR 08-FASHS-19, Sebastian Roché principal investigator for France) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, Dietrich Oberwittler principal investigator for Germany).
  • [24]
    In urban areas of Grenoble (or more precisely Échirolles and Grenoble) and Lyon (Lyon and Vénissieux), it is possible to give the proportions of minors of foreign origin for the year 2005 (the last available year for this type of information). Minors of foreign origin represented 39.4% in Échirolles, 34.9% in Grenoble, 27.1% in Lyon and 50.2% in Vénissieux (Bernard Aubry, Insee, data standardized from a population census, Base Saphir).
  • [25]
    Dietrich Oberwittler and Sebastian Roché, “Experiences, perceptions and attitudes”, European Society of Criminology Newsletter, 3, 2014, 4-10.
  • [26]
    We echo here the comments made by Jean Peneff, proposing a combination of intensive observation and quantified measurement (“Mesure et contrôle des observations dans le travail de terrain”, Sociétés contemporaines, 21, 1995, 119-38).
  • [27]
    In France, observations were carried out in September-October 2011, February 2012, and November 2012; in Germany, where access was simpler, this occurred principally during 2011 with some series in 2012.
  • [28]
    We understand interactions here as contact between the police and public. This might mean as little as a brief verbal exchange. However, when a continued exchange develops, it is still counted within the same unit of interaction.
  • [29]
    However, direct observation does not allow us complete understanding of the reasons behind checks. They result from a range of causes, which are not always verbalized (it would have been counter-productive to systematically ask this of agents, as this risked weakening bonds of trust), or sayable (police officers do not necessarily have a clear conscience).
  • [30]
    Sebastian Roché, Police de proximité. Nos politiques de sécurité (Paris: Seuil, 2005).
  • [31]
    See also Gauthier, “Origines contrôlées”.
  • [32]
    The interactions shown (and numbered) are taken from field logs.
  • [33]
    For the police officers we observed, the focus is on drug trafficking: on multiple occasions, when they discovered a small amount of hashish (suggesting it was only for personal use), they preferred to destroy it rather than take the subject in for questioning (contrary to what the law prescribes).
  • [34]
    Though our analysis is not primarily focused on the “hows” of checks, the issue of familiarity – calling someone “tu” rather than “vous” – is interesting. Sometimes used by French police officers (in this case in a dismissive way), it can also be used by their German colleagues (using “du” rather than “Sie”). However, the difference with what can be observed in France is that in Germany it does not indicate an asymmetry in the interaction, but more an informal, even paternal, connection.
  • [35]
    William Terrill, Eugene Paoline, and Peter Manning, “Police culture and coercion”, Criminology, 41(4), 2003, 1003-34.
  • [36]
    Gauthier, “Origines contrôlées”.
  • [37]
    John Van Maanen, “The asshole”, in Peter K. Manning and John Van Maanen (eds), Policing. A View from the Street (New York: Random House, 1978), 221-37; Didier Fassin, La force de l’ordre. Une anthropologie de la police des quartiers (Paris: Seuil, 2011).
  • [38]
    Daniela Hunold, Dietrich Oberwittler, and Tim Lukas, “‘I’d like to see your identity cards please’: negotiating authority in police-adolescent encounters. Findings from a mixed-method study of proactive police practices towards adolescents in two German cities”, European Journal of Criminology, 2016, 13(5), 590-609.
  • [39]
    We concentrate here only on boys, because independent of their ethnic origins, they are far more likely to be checked.
  • [40]
    By discrimination, we understand here a “pattern of exercise of police powers which results in some social categories being overrepresented as targets of police action even when legally relevant variables (especially the pattern of offending) are held constant” (Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 160). See Fabien Jobard and Jacques de Maillard, Sociologie de la police (Paris: Armand Colin, 2015), 164-8.
  • [41]
    We agree with the criticism made by Fabien Jobard, René Lévy, John Lamberth, and Sophie Névanen, “Mesurer les discriminations selon l’apparence: une observation standardisée des contrôles d’identité à Paris”, Population, 67(3), 2012, 423-51 (425-6). This is precisely the criticism which might be made of Didier Fassin (La force de l’ordre): we do not know enough about what (and how and when) he observed to support his conclusions.
  • [42]
    In view of the limited number of observations, we have divided the groups into three: white (or majority population), visible minorities (North or sub-Saharan Africans in France; Turkish, North African or Eastern European for Germany), mixed (groups where Caucasian individuals and visible minorities are both present). It should be noted that this does not indicate the true ethnic origin of the persons in question, but how they were perceived by the observers (see the methodological discussion on the use of categories of appearance in Jobard et al., “Mesurer les discriminations”, 433-4).
  • [43]
    See in particular Jobard et al., “Mesurer les discriminations”. The investigation by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Data in Focus Report. Police Stops and Minorities, 2010, also provides data of a similar nature. In France, 22% of the majority population stated that they had been subject to a check during the last twelve months, against 38% of sub-Saharan Africans and 42% of North Africans, while in Germany, the numbers were 11% for the majority population and 24% for Turkish people. See Nicolas Jounin et al. (“Le faciès du contrôle: contrôle d’identité, apparence et modes de vie des étudiants en Île-de-France”, Déviance et Société, 39(1), 2015, 3-29 (25)) which, on the basis of questionnaires given to students in the Paris region, shows that non-whites are more likely to be subject to unjustified checks.
  • [44]
    Fabien Jobard, “Le gibier de police immuable ou changeant?”, Archives de politique criminelle, 32, 2010, 93-105.
  • [45]
    René Lévy expressed this idea early on in France: “The [categorizations based on ethnic background] represent in some ways a working tool, and are an element within the practical knowledge which forms the background, the reference point for police officers” (Du suspect au coupable, le travail de police judiciaire (Geneva: Médecine et Hygiène, 1987), 31).
  • [46]
    See in particular Simon Holdaway, The Racialization of British Policing (London: Macmillan, 1996).
  • [47]
    Peter A. J. Waddington, “Police (canteen) sub-culture: an appreciation”, British Journal of Criminology, 39(2), 1999, 287-309. See also Fabien Jobard, “Police, justice et discriminations raciales”, in Didier Fassin and Éric Fassin (eds), De la question sociale à la question raciale? (Paris: La Découverte, 2006), 211-29.
  • [48]
    Michael Banton, The Policeman in the Community (New York: Basic Books, 1964).
  • [49]
    Robert Reiner differentiates between prejudice and discrimination: the first is to attribute a certain number of negative characteristics to a segment of the population, the second is disproportionately – especially in regard to their part in criminal acts – to target police action towards this group (The Politics of the Police, 159-63).
  • [50]
    This situation seems particularly stereotypical among police officers as Didier Fassin (La force de l’ordre) and Fabien Jobard (“Police, justice”), each in their own areas (two distinct urban areas of the general Paris suburbs), observe an interaction identical to this.
  • [51]
    Open Society Justice Initiative, Police et minorités visibles. Les contrôles d’identité à Paris (New York: Open Society Institute, 2009).
  • [52]
    Fassin, La force de l’ordre, 234.
  • [53]
    See for example Manuel Boucher, Les internés du ghetto. Ethnographie des confrontations violentes dans une cité impopulaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2010).
  • [54]
    Marwan Mohammed, “La place de la famille dans la formation des bandes”, Ph.D. diss., 2007, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
  • [55]
    Renée Zauberman and René Lévy, “Police, minorities and the French republican ideal”, Criminology, 41(4), 2003, 1065-100.
  • [56]
    Didier Lapeyronnie, Ghetto urbain (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2008). See also Emmanuel Blanchard, “Contrôles au faciès: une cérémonie de la degradation”, Plein Droit, 103, 2014, 11-15.
  • [57]
    Although the reform of the Code of Nationality in 2000 has added aspects to the right to nationality, many children of immigrants are still excluded from gaining political citizenship.
  • [58]
    Hunold et al., “‘I’d like to see your identity cards please’”.
  • [59]
    James Q. Wilson, Varieties of Police Behaviour. The Management of Law and Order in Eight Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).
  • [60]
    French police do not apply the penal code as strictly as they could and close their eyes to minor crimes. As a consequence, in the French case, we find ourselves facing a paradoxical formalism, with a strongly supported crime control approach on the one hand, and a recurrent under-application of the law on the other, as well as an instrumental use of the law in the style of a street Robin Hood (Van Maanen, “The asshole”).
  • [61]
    Here we are referring to interrogation policy, aiming to support crime solving via increasing the number of offences brought to light by the services (IRAS) (Laurent Mucchielli, “Le ‘nouveau management de la sécurité’ à l’épreuve: délinquance et activité policière sous le ministère Sarkozy (2002-2007)”, Champ pénal/ Penal field, 5, 2008, online). For an overview, see Sebastian Roché, “Les politiques de sécurité intérieure”, in Jacques de Maillard and Yves Surel (eds), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2012), 237-58.
  • [62]
    The effect is far from being automatic or unambiguous in the services. We were present during discussions between agents concerning the pressure caused by these numbered targets.
  • [63]
    Let us remember that the observations and interviews took place between 2011 and 2012. It would be interesting to carry out a similar project today, when abusive identity checks are becoming a political and legal issue.
  • [64]
    The units doing a similar job to the anti-crime squad (BAC) are called Einsatztrupp, but they have a much more restricted mandate (drugs) and headcount (five to ten per district).
  • [65]
    In France, the proliferation of groups of community officers, day squads, and even specialized ground units has in consequence led to the spread of “anti-criminality” methods in a greater number of units.
  • [66]
    However, we must clearly be wary of over-amalgamating these categories (see Philippe Coulangeon, Geneviève Pruvost, and Ionela Roharik, “Les idéologies professionnelles des policiers: une analyse en classe latente des opinions policières sur le rôle de la police”, Revue française de sociologie, 53(2), 2012, 493-527; Jobard and de Maillard, Sociologie de la police, 88-110).
  • [67]
    Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 133.
  • [68]
    See the results of the European Social Survey and the differences between Germany and France from this point of view (Mike Hough, Jon Jackson, and Ben Bradford, “La légitimité de la police: conclusions de l’Enquête sociale européenne”, Cahiers de la sécurité et de la justice, 27-28, 2014, 154-70).
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    For a recent overview, see René Lévy, “La police française à la lumière de la théorie de la justice procédurale”, Déviance et Société, 40(2), 2016, 139-64.
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    Wilson, Varieties of Police Behaviour.
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    Mawby, “Models of policing”.
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    For example, only using the centralisation/decentralisation variables of police systems (cf. David H. Bayley, Patterns of Policing).
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    Here we must also signal the importance of the works (parallel to ours) of Jérémie Gauthier (“Origines côntrolées”).
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    European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Data in Focus Report. Police Stops and Minorities, 2010; Hough et al., “La légitimité de la police”; Oberwittler and Roché, “Experiences, perceptions and attitudes”; Jaak Billiet and Stefaan Pleysier, “Attitudes towards the police in European Social Survey round 5 (2010): comparing Belgium and its neighbours”, in E. Devroe et al. (ed.), Tegendraadse Criminologie. Liber Amicorum Paul Ponsaers (Antwerp: Maklu-Uitgevers, 2012), 301-19; Jonathan Jackson, Jouni Kuha, Mike Hough, Ben Bradford, Katrin Hohl, and Monica Gerber, “Trust and legitimacy across Europe: A FIDUCIA report on comparative public attitudes towards legal authority”, 2014, available at SSRN: or
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    Hough, “Procedural justice”; Jacinta M. Gau and Rod K. Brunson, “Procedural justice and order maintenance policing: a study of inner-city young men’s perceptions of police legitimacy”, Justice Quarterly, 27(2), 2010, 255-79.
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    The authors warmly thank Emmanuel Blanchard, Xavier Crettiez, Fabien Jobard, and René Lévy for their constructive remarks on a previous version of the text.

This article, which draws on direct observation and interviews with police officers and on questionnaires completed by the public, compares decisions made by French and German police officers concerning identity checks and seeks to contextualize these decisions within respect to national styles of policing. Even though the objectives of such checks are similar (fighting crime, asserting authority, gathering intelligence), the extent, frequency and targets of controls differ. French police do more identity checks than their German counterparts. Ethnic minorities are a more recurrent target of police action in France than in Germany. The underlying rationales are determined by training, professional ethos (and the extent to which this is citizen-focused), national policing objectives (and definition of performance), and local police organization.

Jacques de Maillard
Jacques de Maillard is a professor of political science at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin, member of the Institut universitaire de France and assistant director of CESDIP (UMR CNRS/Ministère de la justice/UVSQ/UCP). He has recently published: (with Daniel Kübler) Analyser les politiques publiques (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2015); and (with Fabien Jobard) Sociologie de la police (Paris: Armand Colin, 2015). He has developed research projects on internal security, the spread of neo-managerial norms in the police, and the local management of urban unrest (UVSQ, Faculté de droit et de science politique, 3 rue de la Division Leclerc, 78280 Guyancourt cedex).
Daniela Hunold
Daniela Hunold is a geographer, criminologist, and post-doctoral researcher at the German university police college. She has published (with Dietrich Oberwittler and Tim Lukas) “‘I’d like to see your identity cards please.’ Negotiating authority in police-adolescent encounters. Findings from a mixed-method study of proactive police practices towards adolescents in two German cities”, European Journal of Criminology, 2016. Her interests center on police action in countries with immigration, police violence, and security as a resource in creating space (Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei, Zum Roten Berge 18-24, D-48165 Münster, Germany).
Sebastian Roché
Sebastian Roché is CNRS research director at PACTE (UMR Sciences Po Grenoble, Université Grenoble-Alpes, CNRS), teaches at the École nationale supérieure de la Police (Lyon), and the Universities of Grenoble and Bahcesehir (Istanbul). He has recently published (with Laurent Bègue and Aaron A. Duke) “Young and armed: a cross-sectional study on weapon carrying among adolescents”, Psychology, Crime & Law, 22(5), 2016, 455-72, and De la police en démocratie (Paris: Grasset, 2016). He is particularly interested in crime, and the legitimacy and comparative governance of the police. He has directed the French strand of several comparative projects (Eurojustis 7e PCRD, ANR POLIS, ANR Upyc). Currently, he is working on the effects of religion on police confidence and criminal behavior (PACTE, Sciences Po Grenoble, BP 48, 38040 Grenoble cedex 9).
Dietrich Oberwittler
Dietrich Oberwittler is research group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law, Freiburg (Germany), and professor of sociology (extracurricular) at the University of Freiburg. He is the author (with Per-Olof H. Wikström, Kyle Treiber, Beth Hardie) of Breaking Rules. The Social and Situational Dynamics of Young People’s Urban Crime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), and has been the primary investigator on several international projects, including POLIS (a DFG-ANR project). His interests are the field of empirical criminology, especially juvenile delinquency, research on violence, the police and relations between communities and crime (Max-Planck-Institut für ausländisches und internationales Strafrecht, Günterstalstraße 73, D-79100 Freiburg, Germany).
Mathieu Zagrodzki
Mathieu Zagrodzki is an associate researcher with the Centre d’études sociologiques sur le droit et les institutions pénales (CESDIP) and teaches at Sciences Po Paris, at the Université de Versailles-St-Quentin and the Université de Picardie Jules Verne. He is the author of Que fait la police? Le rôle du policier dans la société (La Tour d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube, 2012), and has published (with Jacques de Maillard) “Plural policing in Paris. Variations and pitfalls of cooperation between national and municipal police forces”, Policing & Society, 2015, 1-14, online. He works on issues around relations between the police and the public and police management (CESDIP, Immeuble Edison, 43 boulevard Vauban, 78280 Guyancourt).
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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