Police shoot a Black man in Morges
Thursday, 16. December 2021

In Morges, the police shoot a black man. Afterwards, they say that the color of his skin did not play a role. But the radio transmissions of the officers tell a different story. The reconstruction of a fatal police operation.

Blacks have died in police operations in Vaud in the last five years. One was suffocated during arrest; one died in police custody; two were killed with three shots each.

"À qui le tour?" read banners seen at funeral marches and anti-racist rallies in recent years, "Who's next?"

Roger Nzoy was hit at the Morges train station on Aug. 30 of this year.

The 37-year-old man from Zurich suffered from mental health problems and had been walking around on the tracks at rush hour that Monday evening. Someone called the police. When the police arrived, the situation escalated: Nzoy ran towards a policeman, who shot him three times. According to the police, Nzoy had previously drawn a knife.

The drama in Morges made waves. Rallies against police violence, vigils and funeral marches were held in several cities.

The death of Roger Nzoy is reminiscent of another, almost identical case: in November 2016, a police officer in Bex shot and killed Hervé Mandundu, a man of Congolese origin, outside his apartment door. After a four-year criminal investigation, the police officer stood trial for murder earlier this year. The trial ended with an acquittal: the policeman had acted in self-defense; the victim had attacked the policeman with a knife. The verdict was appealed, but is not yet final.

"I had no choice," the policeman who killed Mandundu said at the time.

"I had no choice," also says the policeman who shot Roger Nzoy of Zurich in Morges in the summer.

The policeman made this statement in an initial police interrogation immediately after the crime, according to RTS television in western Switzerland. It reveals the police's line of defense. It was not they who made mistakes, escalated the situation and ultimately reacted with excessive force. Rather, the blame lies with the enraged man, who had put four trained and armed police officers in such distress that they had no choice but to fire the gun at him. Thus, the shooting would not be a crime, but legitimate self-defense.

But there are - not for the first time - good reasons to doubt the police's accounts.

Are police officers really "color blind"?

"Skin color doesn't matter," said Clément Leu, commander of the Morges regional police, recently on SRF's "Rundschau." "Skin color had no influence whatsoever," the commander also told RTS television in western Switzerland.

When asked by the French-speaking Swiss TV presenter whether he was really sure that skin color had not played a role, whether he had also asked the police officer in question that, the commander replied, "Of course, he had spoken to the police officer about the case. But they did not talk about the color of the victim's skin. Rather, the decisive factor was the danger posed by this person, by the knife he was carrying. "The person can be of Asian origin, African or white," the commander said on television. "That has no bearing on the assessment of the situation."

Can this statement be true? Are police officers really "color-blind" in their daily work, as the commander of the Morges Regional Police portrayed it? Or is this not rather wishful thinking?

Evelyn Wilhelm, the victim's sister, thinks the commander's assertions are laughable. She says, "If he had, he wouldn't have been treated that way."

In the months before his death, Nzoy repeatedly stayed with his sister. Speaking to the Republic, she says her brother faced stereotypical police perceptions throughout his life. He was constantly checked, she says. In certain places, such as Zurich's main train station, he preferred not to meet with her because otherwise the police would have fished him out again. Roger Nzoy, the son of a black South African woman and a white Swiss man, always carried his Swiss passport in his pocket because he had to identify himself so often.

In general, the widely documented experiences of victims with the security authorities clearly contradict the police's account. But empirical data on so-called racial bias in police forces are scarce.

Even in the U.S., where about 1,000 people are killed by police every year, there is a lack of comparable data that shed light on racial bias among police officers. Nevertheless, there is some evidence about how unequally whites and blacks are treated: For example, blacks in the U.S. are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police than whites. An analysis of two million police calls in two U.S. cities showed that white police officers shoot five times as often in neighborhoods inhabited by blacks as black police officers in the same neighborhoods.

In Europe, and in Switzerland in particular, the starting point is quite different: The population structures are not comparable, police violence is much rarer in this country, and the data on it is even sparser than in the United States. General statements are therefore difficult to make. In individual cases, however, there is often clear evidence that racial prejudices influence the behavior of police officers.

The actors are not always aware of these prejudices. Very few want to admit that they are not immune to racism. However, how quickly racist prejudices lead to distortions of reality was demonstrated in the Morges case, for example, by the portrayal of the events in the first media reports.

In reports that appeared shortly after the events, "Blick" and others, for example, classified the shooting of Nzoy not as a case of police violence, but hastily as a defense against a jihadist attack.

"C'est un homme de couleur".

The image of the crazed knife thrower, says Evelyn Wilhelm, persists six months after her brother was shot. Nzoy, a devout Christian, had been praying at the Morges train station. While doing so, he was observed. "A dark-skinned man praying," the sister says. "That's when they must have thought, 'This must be a terrorist.'"

The police officers were aware that the man on the ground was not white. Radio traffic with dispatch shows that.

Immediately after the last of three shots is fired at Nzoy, a police officer picks up the radio and reports: Shot fired. He calls for an ambulance. The radio messages are short, only the most necessary things are communicated: Track 4, for example. And: He has a knife. He is on the ground. Conscious.

On videos, you can see the police officers excitedly going back and forth. They collect their gloves, try to put them in, put them on and take them off again. With their feet they push Nzoy's body, kneel on him, handcuff him, only then turn him over and pull a knife from under his body.

"If my brother had been blond and blue-eyed, he would not have been left lying there for four minutes in such an inhumane manner. They wouldn't have pushed him around like an animal with their feet when he was lying motionless on the ground, but they would have had the decency to touch him with their hands and examine him," says Evelyn Wilhelm.

Then there is another radio contact with the emergency call center. The center reports that the ambulance is on its way to Morges station. And asks if the police officer on the scene has any further information.

No information, the policeman replies. Silence. And then: "C'est un homme de couleur," he says, a colored man. He is lying on the ground. Nothing more.

The ambulance could have been informed about a variety of things. About whether Roger Nzoy was still alive, for instance. Whether he was bleeding, moving or breathing. Or, if the police had wanted to describe his appearance: the light orange sweater, the light jeans, the white sneakers.

But the policeman does not mention any of this.

The color of the skin did not play a role, the police commander emphasized publicly. It is possible that he actually believes that. Commander Clément Leu does not want to comment on the radio messages themselves, because he does not know them. However, he does not see a contradiction with his statements.

To the Republic he says: "I am still convinced that the skin color did not play a role."

Quite obviously, however, skin color was more present to the police officers on the scene than the commander thinks possible: Because it was the only thing the police officer could think of when asked for further information.

Did it also play a role earlier, when the four policemen stormed onto the platform, their hands on their weapons? And did that affect how quickly the policeman pulled the gun from the holster and pulled the trigger?

The police deny this. The only decisive factor was the threat. The ongoing criminal investigation may provide an answer. The presumption of innocence applies to all involved.

What is clear is that so far there is no indication that Nzoy had threatened anyone before the police arrived. At most, he was dangerous to himself.

The situation seemed to have already been resolved

"My brother was not well," Evelyn Wilhelm tells Republic. He had been suffering from mental problems for several months. In the weeks before his death, he was in bad shape. "He had anxiety, felt haunted, heard voices. He was in a life crisis."

On that Monday in late August, Roger Nzoy boarded a train to Geneva shortly after noon, his sister says. Presumably he was going to visit someone there, but he soon returned. Why he got off in Morges, of all places, remains a mystery. His sister believes he must have been sad, agitated, and could no longer stand to be on the train.

At Morges station, Nzoy caught the eye of a railroad worker who observed him praying. That was at about 5:45 p.m., just fifteen minutes before the fatal shooting.

The railroad worker initially just observed, but became concerned that Nzoy's behavior might endanger himself. He dialed 911, asking for help because he feared Nzoy might throw himself in front of a train.

The call was recorded. According to the records, here's what happened: The worker goes to Nzoy and speaks to him. But he does not want to hear from him. He should go away, Nzoy shouts several times. But the railroad worker is not deterred. "Calm down," he keeps telling Nzoy.

The meat knife that police will find on Nzoy a few minutes later is not an issue at this point. Nzoy does seem upset and wants to be left alone. However, the worker does not seem to see Nzoy as a threat at all. On a video, he can be seen standing close to Nzoy and trying to hold him down as he tries to cross the tracks.

Nzoy initially breaks away from the railroad worker. Then the latter seems to be able to influence him after all. The tense atmosphere subsides. "Stay calm," the railroad worker says to Nzoy. "Sit down."

And indeed: Nzoy catches himself. The dicey situation seems to be settled.

But then the four officers of the Morges regional police storm onto the platform. Roger Nzoy, who had suffered from paranoid episodes in the weeks before, must have been thrown into turmoil by the sight of four police officers rushing over. At that moment, as the police describe it, Nzoy is said to have drawn a meat knife. 26 centimeters long.

"My brother believed he was being followed," says Evelyn Wilhelm. "They wanted him dead, he kept saying. What happened, he had already thought that - and that's what happened."

After police arrive, everything happens quickly, as videos of witnesses show.

Roger Nzoy steps off Platform 5 onto the platform and walks with quick steps toward a police officer. He pulls out his gun, points it at Nzoy and moves backwards into shooting position. He pulls the trigger twice. Nzoy falls to the ground. The policeman holsters his weapon. But Nzoy gets up again and goes after the policeman. The policeman reaches for the Glock 19 again. He fires a third time. One last time, and Roger Nzoy remains down.

"He would have needed help," Nzoy's sister says. "Nothing else."

It's just before 6 p.m. on Aug. 30, 2021, and the trains at Morges station are at a standstill. And once again, a black man dies at the hands of the police.

Carlos Hanimann, Republic, 16.12.2021