Background

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 police and security officers making decisions about who is suspicious based on perceived skin color or assumed ethnic identity rather than reasonable suspicion. This constitutes illegal discrimination under European and international law.

Who does it 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.

Isn’t it a useful law enforcement tactic?

No. Ethnic profiling is not only unfair but also unnecessary and counter-productive. Data shows that ethnic minorities, when stopped and searched, are actually less likely to be found committing an offense than members of the white population.

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

For those who aren’t targeted by police, there can be a sense that stops are a nothing more than a simple inconvenience—something to be tolerated in the name of public safety. But 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.

What is Open Society doing currently 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.

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

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. 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.