Laurent Mucchielli is a sociologist and senior researcher at the CNRS (National Scientific Research Centre, Paris), attached to the Laboratoire Méditerranéen de Sociologie (LAMES, Aix-en-Provence). He is the founder and director of the Observatoire régional de la délinquance et des contextes sociaux (ORDCS) at the University of Aix-Marseille. He has published numerous books and articles on juvenile offending, the sociology of offending, corruption and public security policies. Against the background of the prolongation of the state of emergency in France and the fight against terrorism, he offers unflinching analysis on topics ranging from video surveillance and radicalisation to the arming of French municipal police officers.
Alongside your latest book on the perceived level of violence in Marseille, in which you raise the question of the role of the city’s mayor in security matters, you have recently published the results of a field study evaluating video surveillance (CCTV) in public spaces.What are the main points revealed by this recent study?
This study really is a journey to the heart of the most widely-trumpeted security measure of our age, giving a view from the inside of how it works on a day-to-day level. It is far cry from the discourse and representations which usually surround this issue, which are either dystopian – warning that Big Brother is watching us – or utopian – claiming that video surveillance is revolutionising crime-solving as well as being an effective method of dissuasion/prevention. The small town under study is, furthermore, considered by the local Prefecture as a model to be emulated on account of both the quality of the technical equipment deployed and the competence of its operators, who are all experienced Public Highway Surveillance Agents [Editor’s note: Agents de surveillance de la voie publique, ASVP] working under the supervision of a municipal police officer. We were thus in a position to study a system functioning under ideal conditions. My study lets us see what video surveillance actually does and also provides precise figures. In particular, it provides evidence of the phenomenon by which delinquency simply shifts location, demonstrating that video surveillance achieves neither dissuasion nor prevention, but only the repression of offending through the use of recorded images in court. The use of ‘live’ images is very limited, most of the time having nothing to do with the prevention of offending, and is in general so rare that the greatest problem facing operators is boredom. Lastly, this study shows that the role of video surveillance in solving crimes is real but highly limited both in terms of quantity, as a fraction of the overall amount of crime investigation-related activity carried out by the local police, and in terms of quality, insofar as most of the time it is not a question of looking for decisive evidence, like an image of the face of a person carrying out an offence, but more simply evidence that such-and-such a person or vehicle was present on a certain day at a certain time and place. It is thus more a question of verifying and cross-checking testimony, clues and possible scenarios, in short of adding one more element to the others already forming part of an investigation. In the final analysis, the study of the long-term operation of the system (over a period of 10 years) allows us to conclude that its installation has had no significant impact on the development of offending recorded by police in the town.
In the current state of emergency, does it not appear that the usefulness of video surveillance in criminal investigations has been proved?
Far from it. The fact that the police can find a few images of the presumed killers which are then broadcast on a loop on television news channels does not mean that this makes any contribution whatsoever to fighting terrorism. Firstly, these are always images that have been found after the events, when people are already dead. Secondly, there is no evidence that these images have played a significant role in the subsequent arrests of the terrorists. The recent example of the attacks in Paris and Brussels shows that telephone tapping and tracking bank cards, along with witness testimony and tip-offs, have been far more important. As a general point, I would say that we allow ourselves to be taken in too easily by the images that are given to us and by the visual spectacle of crime. The reality of the work of detectives and intelligence officers is very different. Video may be used at times (especially when conducting long-range surveillance) but it is not their main tool.
You have always voiced strong concerns regarding the arming of municipal police officers. Has your point of view changed since the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks of January 2015?
Not in the slightest. Here too, there is a great deal of empty talk and much is made of symbols, but the whole debate is rooted in representations and feelings of insecurity rather than the cold, objective study of reality. Isolated incidents are used to make spurious arguments. The case of a woman municipal police officer shot dead in pursuit of experienced robbers in 2010 is used as evidence that officers need to be armed, conveniently forgetting the fact that the officer in question was carrying a weapon! And, of course, no-one asks about the tasks given to the municipal police. The fact is that some municipal police unions have been engaged in a real race towards arming their members for a number of years. They aim to imitate the national police and the gendarmerie in all respects and are always asking for more, egged on by certain elected officials who have made security the cornerstone of their electoral and personal popularity.
Is this demand, in your view, at odds with the principle of community policing that the municipal police are meant to follow?
Since the end of the 1970s, most local officials and the majority of the population have been asking for the sort of community policing that the national police and the gendarmerie no longer carry out. In practice this would mean walking the beat, going out and meeting shopkeepers, community organisations, local residents, with long-term placements in well-defined neighbourhoods where officers would play some sort of active role in the life of the community, etc. But instead of taking advantage of this avenue which is open to them, a proportion of municipal police officers – not necessarily the majority, but those with the loudest voices – dream of car-chases and pulling out guns to ‘catch the real villains’. Under Sarkozy’s presidency, successive governments encouraged them in this. And under Hollande, we’ve seen the same thing happen. The terrorist attacks are just a pretext. The truth is that there is no global vision or strategy. Everyone just goes along with these demands to avoid any criticism over security matters.
The fight against terrorism has come to dominate public security policy to such an extent that, according to some, crime prevention strategies are being totally neglected. What are your thoughts on this?
As I am continually trying to explain, repression and prevention are not mutually exclusive. They are two completely different things. Repression equates to emergency treatment, the role of the firefighter trying to put out a fire. Prevention is about anticipating the future, treating the causes to reduce future risks. Both are indispensable and ought to be complementary. The problem is that, in the current situation of panic, repression is not only uppermost in everybody’s minds, but is also receiving the lion’s share of all the budgets. Mesmerised by the present, we no longer have a vision of the future. This is true both at the national and local level. Just look at the announcements made by the new regional presidents: in several cases these involve tens of millions of euros being swallowed up by CCTV cameras, walk-through metal detectors, security improvements in buildings, etc. The same thing is happening in many cities and départements (counties). The problem is that, once the coffers have been emptied, very little is left for prevention work. But the same causes are still there and they will produce the same effects. Family problems, educational disengagement, failure at school, mass unemployment, discrimination are all worse than ever in some neighbourhoods and with every passing day are creating tomorrow’s problems.
In your view, what measures should we focus on in order to prevent radicalisation?
This problem is complex and multi-faceted. There is obviously the question of ghettoisation in certain areas that I have already mentioned. Similarly, there is the problem of the development of certain radical Islamic sects and of the presence in our country of certain dangerous preachers, and this is virtually all coming from Saudi Arabia. More generally, though, there is the inability of our society and our leaders to conceive of and organise a modern model of citizenship, one able to come to terms with its colonial history and able to achieve the positive integration of the different cultures, identities and religions whose presence within France’s population at the beginning of the 21st century is an inescapable fact. Instead of doing this, most of our leaders still cling desperately to a concept of the Nation, the Republic and secularism that has, to my mind, become outdated. As a result, they are locked into defensive, mistrustful postures when what is needed is a new, young outlook, a breath of fresh air, with words and actions that will transcend differences, create links between people and give new hope to all generations. Lastly, one would have to be either rather blind or extremely hypocritical not to see the links which exist between the phenomena of radicalisation and jihadism, and the military-political situation in the Middle East and France’s foreign policy. France is waging war outside its borders, is selling massive amounts of weapons (we are the biggest arms exporter in Europe) and supports some regimes while officially and unofficially fighting against others. Obviously, none of this is neutral. Yet there is no political debate worthy of the name on this subject. As for the worldwide goodwill that we gained from Dominique de Villepin’s speech to the UN in 2003 at the time of the invasion of Iraq by the USA under George W. Bush, it has been comprehensively frittered away by presidents Sarkozy and Hollande. It is all this, in my view, that we should be focusing on today.