Policing on Trial: Europe Grapples with Ethnic Profiling

In London, Home Secretary Theresa May noted that 1.2 million stops take place each year—but only 9 percent lead to an arrest. She recognized that when the tactic was misused it wasted police time and undermined public confidence.

Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May this week announced a public consultation on police powers to stop and search people in England and Wales. No one should be stopped by the police, she said, “just on the basis of their skin color.” By contrast, the following day in Paris, a civil court heard arguments from lawyers representing 13 young men, who are seeking damages after being singled out by French police for identity checks because of the way they look.

The French government’s defense team argued in court that non-discrimination law is not relevant, and that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any problem. Yet during his election campaign last year, President Francois Hollande had recognized the problem and promised to address the question of ethnic profiling in French policing. 

Beyond France, the official responses of other European governments to racially biased policing hovers similarly between acceptance and denial. Most still prefer, like France, to “blame the victim,” rather than change entrenched police practices, even when documented solutions exist.

In the face of an increasing body of research and community pushback, some European governments are getting the message. Earlier this month, a report on Spain by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racism found that ethnic profiling “continues to be a persistent and pervasive problem, with significant adverse impacts on police/community relations.” But he also reported that the Spanish government had acknowledged that it had a problem, even if it had yet to embrace the substantive steps to address it. Those measures, such as gathering proper data on who is being stopped, improved police training and clear legal standards have been shown to work locally in Spain and elsewhere.

A further nudge to action should arise from the many reminders of the costs of ignoring ethnic profiling. In London, Theresa May noted that 1.2 million stops take place each year—but only nine percent lead to an arrest. She recognized that when the tactic was misused it wasted police time and undermined public confidence. 

The collateral damage caused by stopping the innocent because of the way they look is real. It sours police community relations—setting the stage for tragedies such as urban rioting in France in 2005 and in London in 2011, or again most recently in Sweden. The riots that spread out from the Stockholm suburb of Husby in May were sparked by the fatal police shooting of a local 69-year-old. But they came against the background of a police crack-down on undocumented migrants that had led to a surge in police stops of anyone in Stockholm city center who did not look sufficiently Swedish. At least Sweden’s Minister of Integration, Erik Ullenhag has stated that “identity checks based on a foreign appearance actually violate the rules that are currently in place.”

Ethnic profiling in stop and search can be an indicator of deeper race bias in policing, with its attendant costs. In England, the greater awareness of the issues involved can be traced in part to the landmark 1999 Macpherson inquiry finding of “institutional racism” in London’s police, after the botched police investigation into the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Currently, German officials have been grappling with the impact of police bias in misdirecting the focus of investigations. Ten people were murdered, nine of them of migrant origin, over a seven-year period before a neo-Nazi group was identified as responsible. Relatives of victims said police tried to pin the murders on organized crime, drugs or ethnic rivalries, but never examined the possibility of right-wing terror and hate crime.

Stop-and-search procedures can play a legitimate role in policing—when these are based on individualized grounds for reasonable suspicion and not on pejorative stereotypes. But the police must use their powers wisely and sparingly with greater consciousness of the effect they have. When they do so, evidence suggests they will see benefits. The UK’s non-discrimination watch dog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued a report last month examining four police forces that had reduced targeting of minority groups. It found “clear evidence that where forces use an approach based on evidence rather than hunches or generalisations, they have not only seen reductions in crimes rates in line with overall trends, but have also increased public confidence in the police.” By contrast, failure to heed the warning signs risks fostering a more damaged, more divided, and more dangerous society. 

Lyes K., a 23-year-old French theater student who was one of the plaintiffs in this week’s Paris court challenge, says he has been stopped more than a hundred times since he was a young teenager. He put it this way: “After each police stop, you feel a little less French. And if that continues, the situation can only get worse.”

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