Young People, Race and the Police: Finding the Remix

Sixty young people from 14 cities around the world will gather in Belfast, Northern Ireland, this week to talk about policing. They will be sharing experiences and discussing how to combat stereotypes that shape their interactions with the police—stereotypes that cause them to be stopped more often, searched more often, and in some places, killed more often, because of their age, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

The three-day event, My City, My World 2014, is being organized by Public Achievement, a Northern Irish group, with support from the Open Society Foundations, which launched the My City, Real World project four years ago. It will be attended by activists from Berlin, The Hague, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Paris, Stockholm, Barcelona, London, Munich, Amsterdam, New York, Sao Paulo, Nairobi, and Budapest.

Biased policing that targets people because of their racial identity—intended or unconscious—is called racial or ethnic profiling. Typically, it happens with a police stop or ID check, often a frisk and search, or even fines or other sanctions—targeting someone because of who they are rather than what they have done. This violates two of the most basic principles of law: that we are all equal under law, and that we are all innocent until proven otherwise.

Many groups of people share the experience of ethnic profiling, but in every group, the burden of police attention falls most heavily on the young. Young people are by nature greater risk-takers than older people. They spend more time out of doors, socializing on streets and in public places; at times, they are noisy and may irritate the neighbors. All this adds up to young people being more likely to get into trouble.

But young people are also frequent victims of crime and exploitation and in need of protection. Too often, young people experience both too much attention as imagined, potential, or real offenders, and too little service and support when they are victims.

The My City, Real World initiative was built around two realities: that young people of color and from migrant communities are frequently singled out by police because of the color of their skin or how they look—the practice of ethnic profiling; and that a bad encounter with a police officer can lead to an avoidable arrest or worse, especially when experiences and perceptions of bias in policing drive increasingly hostility in ordinary encounters.

In response, it provides a platform for sharing and developing creative strategies for building more constructive relations between their communities and the police.

My City, Real World has already supported a number of initiatives by young people in documenting and advocating for fair treatment, as well as engaging with police to improve understanding, communication and practice. One initiative brought “critical encounter” training developed in South London to Gouda in the Netherlands, where a group of police officers and Gouda youth of Moroccan origin worked together to forge a new relationship. When this training approach was introduced more broadly to the local police, officers reported that they were better able to defuse encounters with young people that had previously escalated into disputes and arrests. 

There are other examples, too, of young people organizing themselves to seek an end to discriminatory policing. In response to mass identity checks by police officers in Spain seeking to detain undocumented migrants for deportation, a group of students organized as Brigadas Vecinales de Observación de los Derechos Humanos took to the streets. Wearing vests and handing out leaflets about rights in public places, these students also created a Twitter campaign that documented and spread the word about the location and frequency of mass identity checks. As a result, in May 2012, the Spanish Ministry of Justice instructed police officers to cease mass ID checks based on racial appearance. However, officers also charged members of Brigadas with obstruction, a misdemeanor that carries hefty fines. 

In the UK, the StopWatch youth group has made films to describe and share the experience of being stopped repeatedly by the police in a bid to raise awareness about the issue. These young Londoners also worked with a group of lawyers and academics to challenge the increasing use of stop and search in the UK; in May of this year, the Home Secretary announced national reforms of stop and search due to concerns about discrimination. StopWatch is now working on a smart phone app that will give information about citizen rights around police stops.

So in Belfast, the plan is for three exciting days of workshops, speed dating–like information exchanges, and live-streamed plenaries. Looking at the innovative projects already underway, it will be exciting to see what collaborations arise and what global networks and learning take forward. Check in on Twitter at #MCRW14 to follow the discussions, and visit the planned live-stream of events here.

Add your voice