H(ard-to-sp)ot Fuzz

A couple of Surveillance Urbaine officers chat with tourists near a bus stop after a rugby game in Perpignan.

In the U.S., police are the enemy. We frantically stomp on the brakes when we meet them on the highway; we peer down the street to make sure they're not hiding in an alley before we jaywalk. The police strike fear in our hearts, because we're afraid that one wrong move could land us in a cell at the county jail.

That's not the case in Perpignan.

It seems odd that police officers would be so invisible. Perpignan is practically a border city with high tourist traffic. Naturally, one would assume that the police would be quick to write tickets – or even arrest – ignorant tourists. Instead, they act as benevolent guardians. Officers appear only when needed and politely guide your behavior rather than harshly correcting it. They are the invisible hand that regulates the public, and surprisingly, this method seems to be working.

On my second day here, dozens of English soccer fans had rooted themselves in a local café to tailgate a game against the French Lyon Football Club. They drunkenly swayed on their feet, shouted cheers, sang songs and ripped off their shirts. Within seconds, two police officers emerged from a street and wove through the crowd, politely motioning for the foreigners to clothe themselves. The officers wore small smiles and returned to the shadows after everyone was decent.

Numerically speaking, there are 75 municipal police officers roaming the rues of Perpignan. With a population of almost 120,000, each Perpignan officer is responsible for nearly 1,600 individuals. Sarasota, Fla., one of Perpignan's sister cities, employ about 175 uniformed men and women to serve a city of only 52,000. This means that one officer from the Sarasota Police Department is only responsible for about 300 individuals.

Regardless of this staggering ratio, L'Observatoire national de la délinquance et des responses pénales reports that the Pyrénées-Orientales – that is, the departement (similar to a county in the United States) that contains Perpignan – is only responsible for 0.7 percent of the total crimes in France. Meanwhile, FBI crime reports from 2006 show that overall crime in Sarasota County was worse than the national average.
These statistics raise a very interesting question: Does engendering a better relationship between the police and the public help eliminate crime?

With only Perpignan as an example, it's hard to be certain if a friendlier police force is actually the cause of the city's low crime rate. The fact that it's a small town in a rural part of Southern France may also be important factors. Yet, one thing is certain: a friendlier police department definitely eases some of the stress off of everyday living.

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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.