Death of arrested man Cédric Chouviat: how superiors covered up police officers' lies

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Cédric Chouviat, aged 42, died after being arrested and held on the ground by police officers on January 3rd 2020 following a routine roadside check near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The latest evidence in the investigation, which has seen by Mediapart and newspaper Libération, reveals not only the responsibility of the four arresting officers in the deliveryman's death, but also that of their colleagues and superior officers who became involved after the arrest. Pascale Pascariello reports.

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The latest evidence in the investigation into the death of deliveryman Cédric Chouviat after a routine roadside check in Paris shows that both the arresting police officers and their superiors told lies and committed serious ethical breaches, Mediapart and newspaper Libération can reveal.

Between July 7th and 16th three of the four police officers involved in the arrest near the Eiffel Tower on January 3rd 2020 were placed under formal investigation for manslaughter and put under the supervision of judges leading the probe. They were also forbidden from having any contact with each other.

On July 10th the fourth, a female officer, was placed under the status of 'assisted witness', which in French law is a witness closely connected with the facts of the case and who could still potentially face prosecution. The investigation is being carried out by detectives from the police watchdog body the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (IGPN) under the supervision of independent judges.

The Direction Générale de la Police Nationale (DGPN), which runs the national police in France, confirmed that so far there has been no request to suspend the four police officers involved. The Ministry of the Interior did not response to requests for a comment on this.

The latest evidence in the case, seen by Mediapart and Libération, sheds more light on the case and shows the involvement of the four officers' superiors, though the latter are not the subject of the judicial investigation.

Cédric Chouviat, still with his helmet on, held on the ground by three police officers in Paris on January 3rd 2020. © Document Mediapart Cédric Chouviat, still with his helmet on, held on the ground by three police officers in Paris on January 3rd 2020. © Document Mediapart
The case goes back to January 3rd when four officers from the VII arrondissement or district of Paris made a roadside check close to the Eiffel Tower on 42-year-old Cédric Chouviat who was on his scooter. It lasted for 13 minutes, at the end of which he was arrested. Having been violently grabbed from behind and by the neck, the deliveryman was then held on the ground face down and handcuffed, still wearing his helmet.

The IGPN detectives watched and listened to video footage of the incident. They state that as he was held on the ground Cédric Chouviat said “'I'm stopping' in a high-pitched tone and 'let go of my helmet' in an urgent voice which seems to convey distress”. Then, having said “I'm suffocating” more than seven times, the deliveryman died from asphyxia. Medical teams were unable to revive him.

When questioned, the four officers insisted they had not heard Cédric Chouviat's cries of distress. Yet one of them, Ludovic F., replied “Sir” to him. When questioned by detectives from the IGPN, that police officer said he “no longer” recalled why he had said that as the deliveryman called for help. He had also forgotten why he called out to his colleague, the team's leader, Michaël P., “it's ok, it's ok, let go” as the latter was applying pressure to Cédric Chouviat. The officer himself had spoken “in a tone seemingly marked by concern”, according to the detectives who listened to the recordings.

The police officers at the scene not only appear not to have heard anything, according to their accounts they appear not to have done anything either. Rather than having applied a “chokehold” on the arrested man, Michaël P. merely said he had “supported the head”. Yet videos of the episode show the opposite. In one of them, from Chouviat's own mobile phone, the police officer's arm can be seen around the arrested man's neck. In another, filmed by a witness, the team leader Michaël P. again has his arm around the deliveryman's neck, while the latter is on the ground.

The officer responded: “I didn't remember having used my left arm … I was tired. Which explains my possible confusion. I don't know what to say … What's more, I'm right-handed! In any case there was no deliberate act.”

When questioned again on July 7th, this time by a judge, the officer stood by his account. His lawyer, Thibault de Montbrial, did not respond to a request for a comment.

Laurent-Franck Lienard, the lawyer representing another of those placed under judicial supervision, plus the female officer who is an 'assisted witness', says the issue of what exactly happened still has to be clarified. “My clients are still part of the investigation to find out what caused Cédric Chouviat's death,” he told Mediapart. “They're going to take part in all the expert assessments which are going to be arranged in order to establish the truth. Everything else is just argumentative.”

However, the IGPN's conclusions leave little room for doubt: the deliveryman was brought to the ground in a few seconds by the team's leader Michaël P. “principally using a chokehold from behind, according to sources”. Once he was on the ground Cédric Chouviat ended up “stretched out lying on his stomach, and very quickly referred to his respiratory distress,” say the detectives.

While three of the four officers at the scene continued to put pressure on his back, one of them “appeared to carry out a chokehold from behind during which time he had, at least once, exerted a grip on his throat”. This had led to a “momentary compromise of the alignment of the head, neck and trunk”.

The IGPN reminded the team's leader, Michaël P., about the post-mortem examination report and questioned him about the link between the asphyxia and the “chokehold manoeuvre that, from the images, you seem to have carried out on the ground”. The police officer replied: “I never had the intention or impression of strangling.”

However, a junior police officer working at the police station in the VII arrondissement, who was not present at the incident but to whom the facts had clearly been reported, said when questioned by the IGPN detectives: “I know that there was a chokehold carried out to bring the individual to the ground, then colleagues turned him over to handcuff him and that's all.”

Fewer than two minutes after he had been held on the ground, face down, Cédric Chouviat asphyxiated. When they noticed the deliveryman had lost consciousness the police officers on the spot took “around 1 minute 58 seconds” to remove the first handcuff and nearly three minutes - “2 minutes 56 seconds” to be precise - to begin “heart massage”.

The detectives from the IGPN asked several times why it took so long for anyone to give him first aid. “In a few seconds I went from [dealing with] a check to a serious illness. I wasn't prepared for it. I was very tired from the efforts used to control Mr Chouviat,” replied the team's leader, Michaël P.

The role of the female police officer's husband

Having been called up as backup, police officers from another district, the XVth arrondissement, then took over. One of them, Fabrice V., said he “noticed a gentleman laid on his back with two officers from the VIIth arrondissement police around him...” Unable to find Cédric Chouviat's pulse he told them “immediately” to “perform heart massage”.

During this attempt to revive the deliveryman, Fabrice V. explained that the female police officer was “talking with a colleague from BAC 07”, referring to the anti-crime police squad based in the VIIth arrondissement. This “colleague” was in fact Nicolas P., the woman officer's husband. Nicolas P. did not just support his wife, he also looked at the videos of the arrest that she had recorded with her telephone. And at 10.17am he used the police radio to report the incident.

This is the version of events he sent to the police control centre at the VIIth arrondissement, and the Paris neighbourhood police headquarters the Direction de la Sécurité de Proximité de l’Agglomération Parisienne (DSPAP): “It involves an individual who was checked by PS07 [editor's note, meaning the local team of four officers], this person was invited to accompany them after the check. This person resisted: during the struggle he had a heart attack.”

As the IGPN noted, the inaccuracy of the information that this officer sent did not stop there. The time was 10.17am. Cédric Chouviat's arrest had taken place fewer than ten minutes before. Yet the officer from the BAC felt able to state that there had been “no defensive intervention, no [telescopic batons], no Taser, no gas. It just involved holding the individual with an armlock to put handcuffs on him, there was no stranglehold or blows.”

He added: “[It was] a simple roadside check, the individual started to insult them so colleagues then asked him to accompany them. The person resisted, he refused to go with them, colleagues tried to handcuff him but while resisting he had a heart attack.”

Questioned by the IGPN about the “information given that showed itself to be untrue”, especially relating to “the control techniques used”, the BAC police officer indicated he had “reported the information as I thought it had been given to me and according to my own observations”.

Though he had not been present during the arrest, and though he was the husband of one of the officers involved, this police officer from the BAC unit nonetheless had no hesitation in giving details on the techniques that were supposedly used during the incident. This was in order to “anticipate questions … I know that in this kind of situation this is the information that's asked for,” he said.

Cédric Chouviat is pushed by one of the police officers during the roadside check in Paris on January 3rd 2020. © Document Mediapart Cédric Chouviat is pushed by one of the police officers during the roadside check in Paris on January 3rd 2020. © Document Mediapart
This officer is not the only one to have doctored the facts. One of the divisional inspectors from the VIIth arrondissement, Yves C., had hurried to the scene. Here he was briefed by the team's leader Michaël P. about what techniques had been deployed during the arrest. He informed the IGPN what the officer had told him at the time: “He was supporting his head, from what he showed me with his right hand, at the level of his helmet … very quickly he lost balance and fell backwards to the ground with him below and the man above … after that I can't be more precise about the intervention itself.”

However, in the information that the inspector sent to the DSPAP headquarters at 10.30am on the day of the incident, he had merely written: “At that moment the individual resisted, tried to escape the arrest, he was brought to the ground by colleagues. And at that moment colleagues noticed that he was no longer breathing and started heart massage.”

The IGPN detectives asked the inspector about that version of events, questioning him about the absence of “details of the control techniques that were mentioned in front of you...” The inspector replied: “The detail of the techniques didn't seem important to me.” He then added, unsolicited: “I absolutely did not seek to hide anything.”

Part of what the divisional inspector and the BAC police officer told the DSPAP and the VIIth arrondissement police control centre then made its way into the official press release put out by the senior police officer in Paris, police prefect Didier Lallement. The judges asked Lallement to send them “copies of all the press releases published by the police prefecture on this case since January 3rd 2020. But the IGPN investigators have told the judges that “as of now, there's been no response from the police prefecture”.

As Mediapart has reported (see here), when they were initially questioned the four police officers presented Cédric Chouviat as “aggressive”, a version of events relayed in turn by the police prefecture. Yet as the IGPN detectives noted when they listened to the recordings, Cédric Chouviat simply responded to the “smiles from the entire unit”, to their “mocking attitude” and the “crude” comments made by the team's leader.

Another problem emerged when the team involved in the arrest arrived back at their police station. The four officers were not kept apart but gathered in the office of deputy superintendent Philippe Barralon for a debriefing that lasted around 15 minutes. At that point the four officers confirmed the version sent over the police radio, without stating that Cédric Chouviat had been held on the ground. That is in any case what a police major who was present at this meeting later told the IGPN. The major noted, without apparent concern, that the four officers involved in the incident “spoke among themselves after the debriefing to go over events”.

The references to “debriefing” and “going over events” are striking here. It seems everyone agreed to produce just one version of events. And, astonishingly, only one version of events was written up by the arresting officers – this was by the female police officer – at the request of the deputy inspector in charge of neighbourhood policing in the arrondissement. This is according to one officer who was later questioned.

Yet all these attempts to distort the facts came up against the unanswerable reality of the video recordings and witness accounts. There are, though, still some aspects that need clarifying. In particular detectives have not managed to locate the lanyard for Cédric Chouviat's phone, which he was wearing around his neck.

When contacted by Mediapart Cédric Chouviat's family – his wife Doria and parents Fatima and Christian – said that in view of this new information they wanted it to be become a murder not a manslaughter inquiry. “The police officers' lies continued when I went to the police station at 2.47pm on the day of my husband's death,” said Doria. “They told me that my husband had been aggressive, asked me if he was suffering from heart disease because according to one of the people in charge at the station he had had a heart attack.”

“When we learnt about these new facts in the investigation it caused us suffering, but alas they're necessary to know the truth. In reading them we discovered that Cédric was killed, something in which the woman police participated. She's just a simple witness but she took part in the arrest,” she said. “It was murder,” said Cédric's father Christian Chouviat, who deplored the fact that “the police can do what they want today”.

The family's lawyer Arié Alimi said: “We have confirmation that, if the stranglehold and holding someone down on their stomach techniques continue, it will cause more deaths. Cédric Chouviat's case, like that of Geneviève Legay [editor's note, a 73-year-old woman who was badly injured at a demonstration in Marseille in March 2020], reveals the habitual practice of covering up police violence at all levels of the police administration, right to the top.”

He added: “The family are waiting for the police officers to be suspended, and also those who have contributed to the cover-up over the origins of Cédric Chouviat's death.”

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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