Songshan— A 27 year-old Rén man was brutally beaten in the custody of the Gendarmerie on September 4th, the second high-profile assault at the hands of Federal Gendarmes in weeks. Cai Zhigang, a cigarette vendor in the streets of suburban Songshan, was arrested after an altercation with another cigarette vendor and brought into Gendarme custody, only to be beaten into a coma by repeated blows to the head. He remains in a stable, yet unconscious condition at Songshan’s Lin Guoqiang General Hospital.
The death has sparked public debate over the role of the Gendarmerie, federal law enforcement officers who carry firearms and operate along military lines, in day-to-day policing. At a community vigil cum protest outside the social housing block where Cai was arrested, locals expressed shock and dismay at his killing.
“It isn’t right that gendarmes with guns are the ones enforcing the law in our neighborhood,” said Hou Ruixia, a local who said she often purchased cigarettes from Cai. “Most of them are out-of-towners who treat our streets like an enemy city. Why are we constantly being watched by gendarmes when downtown never has any cops in sight?”
Municipal Council member Xiao Jindian, whose district includes the neighborhood, announced that he would introduce a resolution calling for the immediate removal of Federal Gendarmes from Songshan Municipality. “The people have spoken, and they are speaking loudly and clearly,” said Xiao. “Armed soldiers masquerading as police officers have no place on our streets.”
Federal Gendarmes have carried out day-to-day policing duties in cities across Laeral since 2013 via the Gendarme Policing Capacity Support program, in which regular municipal or township police in high-crime areas are supplemented by Federal Gendarmes for normal policing duties. As of February 2021, gendarmes operate through the program in nine municipalities and five townships across Laeral, primarily in mid-sized cities such as Marist, Lushui, and Lyrene. Per the program’s website, Gendarme Policing Capacity Support “bolsters the ability of local police to respond rapidly and robustly to organized crime threats.” Proponents of the program point to a 22% drop in violent crime achieved in Marist, the program’s pilot municipality, from 2013 to 2014.
Yet since its beginning, the evolution of the Gendarmerie’s duties from counter-terrorism, anti-drug, and anti-smuggling operations to normal policing work has spurred concerns over police brutality. The force operates along military lines, only being separated from the armed forces in 1976, and uses military vehicles and equipment in its operations. Although acknowledging that the militarization of the force can be necessary under certain circumstances, such as the 2015 Heyang Glass Factory shootout against a drug syndicate which left two gendarmes dead, critics say that the firearms and heavy protective gear carried by gendarmes during everyday duties reduce their ability to relate with the communities they protect, and contribute to a martial culture which leads to the mistreatment of prisoners.
“When you have gendarmes being trained as soldiers, carrying pistols and rifles, and going from raids on smuggling dens to investigating everyday matters, it’s obvious that there’s going to be struggles with policing,” said lawyer Clément Morel, who represents the family of Swarna Sahni, a Desi man who suffered a concussion and multiple broken bones after an altercation with gendarmes in early August.
In Songshan, meanwhile, Gendarmerie leadership have announced that they are investigating the incident and have placed the gendarmes involved on disciplinary leave during the course of the investigation, although they have declined to release the names of those involved. “We take respect towards the community very seriously in our role as law enforcement professionals, and so we are carrying out a thorough investigation of this incident,” said Colonel Agathe Yue, commander of the Songshan gendarmerie garrison. “The evidence points towards wrongdoing in the way that this encounter was handled, and we wish to ensure that such incidents are not repeated.”