Going undercover as a cop

My book review in The Saturday Paper:

In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis sparked a long overdue global reckoning with police violence and accountability. More than a year later, this debate is increasingly relevant.

A recent study by the University of Washington, published in The Lancet, found that more than half of police killings in the United States between 1980 and 2018 were mislabelled because medical examiners were too cosy with law enforcement. During that time, close to 31,000 Americans were killed by the police but more than 17,000 deaths were unaccounted for in the official records. Black Americans, Latinos and Native Americans experienced higher levels of murderous police violence than white people.

It’s a global problem. Consider this brave account of a French journalist going undercover for two years as a police officer in northern Paris, where locals have a contentious relationship with the law. Valentin Gendrot has a unique record of embedding with the most marginalised in French society, including going undercover as a worker at a Lidl supermarket and on the assembly line at a Toyota factory. It’s a noble form of reporting that rarely occurs in Australia, a damning indictment of a journalistic profession that too often prefers to remain close to power rather than to challenge it.

The book opens with a stark description of a brutal and senseless police beating of a migrant, after Gendrot’s colleagues go on one of their regular “bastard hunts”. He’s been on the job for only two weeks.

Gendrot is sympathetic to the emotional and physical trauma experienced by many cops – the profession has one of the highest suicide rates in France. Racism, sexism, homophobia and violence against minorities are commonplace and Gendrot constantly wrestles with his conscience as he either overlooks these offences or partakes in them.

After a serious assault by a fellow officer “who went too far”, Gendrot is expected to help cover up, and finds himself torn. Is making a false statement justified in the cause of investigative journalism, in order to remain friends with his colleagues? “As an undercover journalist, I made the right decision,” he writes. “As a cop, I did exactly what my colleagues expected of me. As an individual and a human being, it’s a very different matter. How far am I prepared to go?”

The result is a courageous investigation. Cop reveals insights that will be familiar to those at the receiving end of racist policing anywhere.