Police and Fire in Perpignan: A "Complicated" Relationship

“Sometimes when they see us, they’ll spit on the ground,” the man says with his eyebrows furrowed. He’s seated at a wooden table sporting a light pink “Royal Polo” shirt and has a large bruise on his left arm. He’s talking about his job.

Pierre Moret is a municipal police officer.  Often his work has taken him to housing projects where the residents openly express their dislike.

Moret  – who asked to use a false name because he did not have permission to speak publicly about his work – is one of 75 municipal police officers in Perpignan. Perpignan has a population of almost 120,000, so Moret and each of his 74 coworkers is responsible for nearly 1,600 individuals.

L’Observatoire national de la délinquance et des responses pénales reports that the departement, or county, containing Perpignan is responsible for 0.7 percent of the total crimes in France. Keeping the crime rate low is difficult in a city near the Spanish border with a large homeless population, clashes among ethnic groups and a high rate of unemployment. With so much on his plate, Moret doesn’t need the added stress of a complaining fire department.

Only half a mile away at Fire and Rescue Department 66, Captain Stephane Bolte, one of the chief guards, sits at a desk with a stern expression on his face. Three stripes in the middle of his uniform identify him as third in command.

“Right now,” Bolte said, “there is no radio communication system between us and the police.”

Bolte’s superior officer, and the commander of the entire station, explains the problem.

“The police have a different mission than firefighters,” Commander Olivier Di Bartolomeo said. “They need to check for information and research about the criminal side of it, whereas the firefighters are here to rescue the people.”

Therefore, communication can afford to be limited because the fire department’s goals and the police department’s goals rarely intersect.

Bolte, however, comments that "rarely" doesn’t mean "never." In 2005, the emergency services departments were hit by a crisis that began with two incidents in which gypsies were accused of murdering Arabs.

“This caused a conflict with the Arab population – the North African population – in Perpignan,” Bolte said, “which resulted in riots. Many vehicles were overturned, stores were set on fire.”

As the situation evolved, both police officers and firefighters sustained injuries due to what Bolte thinks was a dangerous lack of communication.

Moret also recalls the 2005 incident. He nods his head, but then furrows his brow in confusion when he hears that some firefighters want increased contact with the police.

“These riots were kind of a special case,” Moret said. “Even the Gendarmerie [military police] and the National Police came to help. Right at the beginning, there was no possibility for good communication because everyone was completely overwhelmed.”

After the riots were under control, a command post was organized to open a dialogue among the heads of each emergency service department. Moret said such a committee is typical after extreme emergency situations. Therefore, communication should not be a problem.

“If the firefighters want support from the police, they just call,” he said. “And unless we are completely occupied by something else, then we’ll come with them.”

Still, when asked about the fire department’s relationship with the police, both Bolte and Di Bartolomeo uttered the same two words.

“It’s complicated,” they said.

Di Bartolomeo admits that most of the firefighters’ communication is with the general hospital. Seventy percent of the department’s missions are with an ambulance, he said. Consequently, the pompiers have a closer relationship with the hospital, but Di Bartolomeo and Bolte still think communication with the police is too limited.

Moret is perplexed by the fire department’s complaints.

“I’ve personally gone with them several times, so I don’t really see what the problem is,” Moret said. “Many of my colleagues are volunteer firefighters, so they know the professional firefighters pretty well. I’m a little surprised to hear this.”

However, because he is a part of the police department, Moret may be forgetting how complicated the police system is in France. The country has three types of police forces. There is the national police who, like the FBI, work directly for the national government; gendarmes who also work for the government, but serve as a military force like the National Guard; and finally the municipal police. It’s the municipal police who have to deal with local residents on a day-to-day basis. The municipal police answer directly to three different divisions within the government.

Furthermore, inside the municipal police department are three sectors: Two are devoted to criminal intervention and the third is solely responsible for creating friendly relationships with the public.

Moret also admits that crime is ever-present in Perpignan and constantly requires his – and the whole department’s – attention.

“I’m aware all the time of people who are stealing things or committing crimes,” he said. “It goes on all the time.”

Crime in Perpignan can range from a few raucous rugby fans to whole underground drug trades. Moret thinks one of the biggest problems is young repeat offenders. In France, numerous laws are in place to protect young adults, and especially minors, from being held in jail for extended periods of time.

“For example, there was a young person whom we had arrested maybe 30 times within a year or two,” Moret said. “He ended up killing an old person to steal a purse.”

With so many crimes to keep them occupied, at times the police may be too busy to assist the firefighters. Therefore, the pompiers at Perpignan Nord are currently establishing a new communication system specific to the police and fire departments.

“The way we will use it is to set up different meeting points,” Bolte said. “If the police have to go to a certain place to deal with urban violence, they will tell us where to go where it’s safer and establish a meeting place with us.”

Moret thinks this type of communication is already in place. He says he doesn’t see what’s new about the firefighters’ system.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of town near the suburb of Cabestany, the police and pompiers work together to extinguish a small house fire. The two departments mingle as they work and several officers chat amicably with onlookers. One spectator brings the firefighters a one-and-a-half-liter bottle of water. For once, it seems the complex triangle of emotions among the public, the police and the fire department has love on all three sides.


About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.