Update: 11.07.2018

Suspected police violence in the canton of Vaud: authorities must act

Several people have died during or following an arrest by the police in the canton of Vaud in one year. Authorities have yet to respond. This troubling situation has mobilised civil society. Several organisations have denounced the obvious immunity from charges and the institutional racism.

When cantons and communities turn a blind eye and the legal system is slow to act, we need to remember our international obligations. In the future, cases of police violence should be examined by a special investigation.

Accumulation of serious cases

In November 2016, a young man without any previous history with the police was shot and killed by police in Bex (canton of Vaud). A short time later, a jogger unwantedly became a target for the Lausanne City Police. He was hit by several police bullets and had to be taken to an emergency ward. In 2017, an unexplained death occurred in a Vaud prison. In February 2018, a fourth man died after a police check “got out of hand.”

All these events have two things in common: the dark colour of the victims’ skin and the lack of transparency of the authorities. It is still unclear exactly what happened during these events. Although some of the victims had a criminal record, others did not. But nothing justifies their deaths or the severe injuries they received during the police intervention. The accumulation of serious cases in Vaud within a year is all the more conspicuous because the canton has been in the headlines for the same reason in the past. (See our French article “Violence policière: un jugement cantonal contre l'impunité”


Demonstrations

Several civil society organisations have had enough. During numerous demonstrations commemorating the death of Hervé Bondembe Mandundu in Bex in 2016, they voiced their worries to the general public. Some of the protestors joined to form the Jean Dutoit Collective during a meeting in Lausanne in 2015 of around 100 persons of Western African origin and a citizens committee. The Collective is committed to staying in permanent contact with people who are unintentionally or intentionally profiled (e.g. for looking like “small-time drug dealers”). In 2017, the Collective published a report in which marginalised groups were allowed to voice their position. There were reports about numerous violations, including death threats, illegal confiscation of identity documents, confiscation of money, physical violence and beatings. The list is long. An example from the report: “If an African member of our Collective would like to pick up his papers at the police station he is told to come round again later. If a Swiss member of the same Collective asks for the same papers, the documents are quickly returned. This is proof of additional discrimination.”

Civil society mobilised

The canton of Vaud chapter of the League for Human Rights has also noted an alarming increase in police violence and racially motivated actions by the canton of Vaud law enforcement. The League for Human Rights president, Yan Giroud, wrote in an open letter on19 April 2018: “We demand that independent and impartial investigations are opened in the case of complaints filed against members of the police force for potentially criminal acts and racism. The present anti-racism criminal provision—with all its implementation difficulties— provides for penalties of imprisonment of up to three years.” Police violence and racial profiling are often intertwined (see our German report on the topic). Like other NGOs, the League for Human Rights is calling for the creation of an independent complaints office.

International obligations

The public has been requesting the creation of an independent complaints office for a long time. But it has not yet found a majority in the city council and the topic has not been discussed at a cantonal level, despite international human rights organisations repeatedly criticising the existing complaints mechanisms for victims of police violence. The Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination all regret that there are no independent investigation mechanisms on a cantonal level and no national database to record complaints against police personnel.

Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has already ruled against Switzerland in cases of police violence twice before (2006 and 2013). In both cases no fair investigation procedure had been granted.

Gauntlet

If a potential victim of police violence wants to fight back in Switzerland, the victim must file a complaint with the police. The closing remarks of the proceedings lie with the public prosecutor’s office, an authority which is traditionally quite close to the police. The police, on the other hand, automatically lodge a complaint for public disorder and insulting an official. Lawsuits in cases of police violence are often long and burdensome and rarely side in favour of the complainant. This can be seen in the Wilson A. case that happened in Zurich.

As the Jean-Dutroit Collective underscored in its report, this imbalance can be fatal especially for the weakest members of society. The affected and police personnel both know victims have no means to report cases of suspected violence. This results in a system where victims feel helpless and police are above the law.

An independent mechanism is coming soon

The creation of independent investigation mechanisms and improved access to justice are extremely important for victims of abuse. Since no progress has been achieved on a communal and cantonal level, national politics has been addressing the topic recently. In April 2018, the Federal Council accepted the UPR recommendations on the subject (read our article). In this way it has committed itself to develop, in cooperation with the cantons, independent investigation mechanisms to deal with complaints against the police, and to provide for the punishment of offenders who are found guilty. The incidents in the canton of Vaud underscore the urgency of such measures, in order to contain a worrying contemporary phenomenon. In 2017, Swiss police specialist Frédéric Maillard had the following to say about the situation: “Since 2015, we have witnessed a degeneration of police work, underlined by ever-increasing discrimination and arrests with a disquieting ending.” It seems that the Federal Council has finally become aware of the problem. When will the cantons and communities follow suit?

The opening of a political and institutional debate addressing problems such as racism, racial profiling and police violence is a first step towards finding constructive approaches. Both citizens and authorities (national, cantonal, communal) profit from the prevention and punishment of authority abuse. In Lausanne, numerous city council members assumed that a critical questioning of the police force would lead to a veritable hatred of authorities. But the contrary is true. The critical questioning of conventional police practices is the only possibility to prevent a loss of trust of the populace in a socially relevant institution in the medium term. A climate of hostility towards authority helps no one.

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