It’s all about connections in France. A friend’s high school classmate knows a man who knows the person you want to meet. Connections get you his phone number. But introductions, I’ve discovered after many painful botched attempts, will get you in the door. In this case the wide portal of 36 Quai des Orfevrés home of the Paris Police Prefecture. Also the haunt of George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret fictionally in charge of the Suréte homicide. Now it’s called Brigade Criminelle, the elite homicide division on the fifth floor.
But I’d been there, visited ‘Maigret’s office’ and seen the photos of Simenon visiting the real Inspector he based Maigret on. I saw the intake desk, the holding cells, climbed the winding back stairways and saw messy paper piled desks. But this time I had an introduction to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit. The team who arrived at the scene of the crime, assembled the evidence, handed it to the Brigade Criminelle detectives and particular to the Prefecture, exclusively handled the fingerprints of each case.
My friend Anne, who founded an association with rape victims and their families to promote legislation for penal re-education and pyschological programs for offenders, met François at the sentry gate. François, seventeen years in the Brigade Criminelle and now running the Crime Scene Unit, puffed on his pipe with a nod to Maigret and flashed his ID at the sentry. The we were in the famed courtyard and seconds later mounting the staircase into the heart of ’36’. Magistrates and avocats, wearing black robes and white ermine around their necks bustled past since the Tribunal, court, adjoins the Prefecture.
One stop shopping, I thought, since a suspect is booked on the third floor, held in gard à vue in a cell in the basement then within twenty four to forty eight hours taken back up to the third floor crosses the corridor and into the courtroom to be arraigned. After that the suspect either bids adieu or if the Brigade Criminelle’s assembled enough evidence and the la Procurer - like the DA - has enough to try her/him he’s back downstairs to the basement cells. After the quick tour through the clogged Tribunal corridor - I mean how many black robed Magistrates does it take to block a wide high ceilinged 18th century corridor? Enough I discovered as they huddled discussing cases, we again crossed the courtyard, past ‘flic’s, cops, smoking in the corners, down more steps and into another courtyard and then into another. Now we were in a courtyard surrounded by a soot-stained wing of the Tribunal and facing ugly tan portables. The ‘heartbeat’ of the Crime Scene Unit.
I’d hoped for a more picturesque building but here François - off to a case - handed us to Remy who was in charge of the division. Remy, orange pants, matching tie and little English smiled. “I’ll show you the father of modern forensics, Bertillion, this was his lab and office.” Here I wondered? But Remy led us to the next building, through a warren of hallways and we were back in the old part. Somehow this complex at ’36’ on the Ile de la Cité all connected. We saw Bertillon’s early instruments and how he developed in the late 1890’s what everyone still uses today - the techniques of fingerprinting and identification. In 2000 the fingerprint division connected to APHIS the fingerprint database but they still use the old fingerprint cards to identify a hit on APHIS and keep to the standards of a 12 point match up on the fingerprint pad.
But forget the technical for a moment, I was struck by the camaraderie among the technicians at their computers, the joking and quips and comments as they stood comparing old brown files, or in the lab room pulling out graphite powder and testing for indentations on paper, or in another the fingerprints on counterfeit Euros. Like a family. Everyone time we met someone it was handshakes or kisses hello...ok, it’s France even in the workplace people double cheek kiss when they meet. But it added a human touch not found at the FBI. Even a Christmas tree near Bertillion’s old lab. One of the highlights was the reconstruction room. A room in the base of the 15th century tower where the team re-enacts the crime scene. The new in the old, and with their cramped headquarters every bit is used. So after an illuminating four hours and with a nod to Maigret, double cheeked kisses to his descendent Remy we left ’36’ and headed across the street to Cafe Soleil d’Or, where the ‘flic’s’ eat lunch. Supposedly Maigret 'ate' there, too.