Ethnic Profiling: What It Is and Why It Must End

What is ethnic profiling?

Ethnic profiling is the use of racial, ethnic, national, or religious characteristics as a way of singling out people for identity or security checks. It refers to law enforcement and security officers making decisions about who is suspicious based on race, ethnicity, or ethnic identity rather than reasonable suspicion.

Is profiling legal?

Police powers to stop and search vary from place to place. But profiling—the targeting of specific individuals or groups based on appearance—constitutes illegal discrimination under U.S., European, and international law.

Who does profiling affect?

Minorities and immigrant communities all across Europe have reported discriminatory treatment by the police. The Open Society Justice Initiative has documented widespread profiling in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and other European Union member states.

In the United States, racial profiling continues to be a prevalent and egregious form of discrimination. Police officers across the country routinely stop black and Latino men without cause. Since September 11, 2001, racial profiling has become much more prevalent for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Equally troubling are local immigration laws that invite rampant profiling of Latinos, Asian-Americans, and others presumed to be “foreign,” based on how they look or sound.

Isn’t it a useful law enforcement tactic?

No. Ethnic profiling is not only unfair but also unnecessary and counter-productive. Data shows that racial profiling is a bad tool because when it is used, the rate of discovering unlawful conduct is lower than when law enforcement activity is not infused by race stereotypes.

What’s the impact when powers like stop and search aren’t used with care?

For those who find themselves pulled aside for frequent or abusive stops based solely on their appearance, these stops are often embarrassing, humiliating, and even traumatizing.

Unfair policing not only affects individuals, but also their families and entire communities, shaping a view of police as biased and untrustworthy. It generates reluctance to cooperate with police officers, which undermines efficiency in profound ways.

Where is Open Society working to combat ethnic profiling?

In Europe, our reports have documented the extent and nature of ethnic profiling in countries across Europe. We have launched and supported strategic litigation to challenge discrimination. This has included court challenges to police stops in France, the UK, and Spain, and a groundbreaking ruling from the UN Human Rights Committee that ethnic profiling amounts to a breach of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

The human cost of ethnic profiling and importance of addressing it are often not well understood. We are producing a series of reports documenting the human impact of ethnic profiling in Europe. These reports—which focus on England and Wales, France, and the Netherlands—feature first-person accounts from people who have been directly affected by profiling to illustrate the practice’s often unseen costs and the importance of advancing police practices that are demonstrably fair and effective.

In the United States, Open Society supports work to end New York City’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy that results in thousands of law-abiding people being stopped every year—the vast majority black and Latino. We fund work to end unfair anti-immigrant laws that violate due process and invite profiling of people presumed to be immigrants.

Do you work directly with police?

Yes, we do not only critique. We also work collaboratively with police to develop fairer and more effective policing practices.

In Europe, our pilot projects with police have shown that when police focus resources on genuine threats and build open and positive relationships with ethnic minority communities, they can reduce ethnic profiling and increase their effectiveness. A policing handbook pulls together examples and offers a conceptual framework for improving efficiency. We continue to invite collaborations with police departments on piloting these best practices.