When Valentin Gendrot applied for a job with the Paris police in 2017, he didn’t expect to get through the vetting process. A thorough background check would have revealed that Gendrot, then aged 29, was an investigative journalist who specialised in exposing dubious working practices: he had previously worked undercover at a call centre, a debt recovery agency and a car plant.

His application was, however, successful and he began a two-year stint as an adjoint de sécurité (ADS), a position roughly equivalent to a police community support officer in the UK. Things got off to an underwhelming start when, on completing the obligatory three months’ training, he was assigned to a dreary posting at a mental health facility, charged with transporting patients from one psychiatric unit to another. After 15 months in this role he earned a transfer to Paris’s notoriously restive 19th arrondissement, where he was finally able to experience front-line policing.

On the beat … Gendrot during his time as an adjoint de sécurité. Photograph: Editions Goutte d’Or/AFP/Getty Images

Gendrot’s account of his time on the force, Flic, made waves in France last year and is now available in English, thanks to Frank Wynne’s tidy translation. It portrays a working culture in which racism and misogyny are rife and police regularly exceed their powers with impunity. “Officers dealing with members of the public, he writes, “are routinely overfamiliar, inappropriate, aggressive in their words and actions, and insulting, and they unlawfully confiscate merchandise … from those [unlicensed street hawkers] issued with fines.”

In one particularly disturbing incident, an officer beats up an innocent teenager for talking back. The boy, of African heritage, is bundled into a police van and repeatedly punched; Gendrot watches as his colleague goes “completely berserk, uses his elbow to pin the boy’s chest so he can lay into him … like a man possessed”. When the victim later files a complaint, triggering an internal investigation, several officers give false testimony in support of their co-worker, who is cleared of wrongdoing. Gendrot wonders: “How can he ever trust the police again after this incident?”

While the depiction of the police in these pages is unflattering and at times damning, it is not entirely unsympathetic. Gendrot cites a 2018 report by the French senate into the working conditions of officers serving in the Île-de-France region, which identified a number of chronic problems. Some, such as the psychological stress of regularly confronting violence, are intrinsic to the occupation and to a degree inevitable. Others, such as long hours, irregular work patterns and the pressure of having to meet performance targets, are endemic to the 21st-century neoliberal managerialism espoused by President Macron.

The toll of these conditions is most clearly visible in the alarming suicide rate among French police officers, which is 36% higher than among the general population. In 2019, the director general of the police force responded to concerns about officers’ mental health by issuing a memorandum advising local constabularies to arrange barbecues to boost morale – an intervention derided by many officers as feeble and condescending.

Any credible critique of policing must give due weight to these organisational questions, and the author does not duck this. Some matters, however, are cultural rather than structural, and Gendrot’s anecdotal snapshot of life on the force suggests the prevalence of macho and chauvinistic attitudes is a big problem: people of non-white heritage are referred to by discriminatory epithets; a male officer persistently harasses a female colleague, rigging the work schedule to ensure she is always assigned to accompany him on patrols; while sharing a dorm with a fellow ADS, Gendrot wakes one morning to find his roommate sitting naked on his face, with his balls resting on his forehead, taking a selfie.

Gendrot’s encounters with male boorishness prompt him to reflect on his own conflicted relationship with masculinity. His scrawny frame and spectacles make him a somewhat unlikely copper. He is good at football, which helps him to fit in, but is uncomfortable with some other rituals of male bonding, such as sharing stories of sexual escapades (“something I wouldn’t talk about even with close friends”). These personal asides provide a pertinent subplot to the story: one wonders how many capable people are put off joining the police for fear of not fitting in.

This English edition appears at a time of renewed scrutiny of policing in the UK, prompted by several egregious incidents of misconduct – including, most recently, the revelation that officers took photographs of the bodies of two murder victims, which they then shared with colleagues on WhatsApp. Many of the problems highlighted by Gendrot exist, in varying degrees, in police forces all over the world. Chief among these is the perverse code of honour that compels otherwise decent officers to cover for the violent thuggery of colleagues. Without proper accountability a police force ceases to serve the community and becomes something else entirely. As Grendot remarks after witnessing an incident of police brutality: “I feel like I’m riding with a gang that has unlimited powers.”

Cop by Valentin Gendrot is published by Scribe (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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