Can Europe Make It?

Widespread ethnic profiling by police: a call for EU action

Citizens should be treated with dignity and respect and they should trust that the police are truly operating in their best interests.

Karen Taylor Momodou Jallow Claire Fernandez Mitchell Esajas
16 December 2016
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'Routine stop and search', Hackney, North London, 2011. Karel Prinsloo/Press Association. All rights reserved. If you have never been stopped and search by the police, you might not see how it can affect those who are systematically stopped and searched, sometimes several times a week, for no apparent reason. Even if you have nothing to be blamed for, it is humiliating and frustrating to be targeted, singled out very often, just because of your perceived race, ethnicity or religion, rather than on the basis of individual behaviour or objective evidence.

With the tightened border controls over migration concerns and the threat of terrorism, the increased perception of use of ethnic profiling has been reported by anti-racism organisations across Europe.

When available, data on stop and search by police and border guards point to a disproportionate impact on ethnic and religious minorities. In the United Kingdom, Black people are stopped by police at six times the rate of White people and Asians at almost twice the rate of Whites. In Granada in Spain, Roma are 12 times more likely to be stopped than White people. In Belgium, there has been an increase in ethnic profiling by police of young males of African or north African background since the Brussels and Paris terrorist attacks. 79 % of border guards at EU airports rate ethnicity a helpful indicator for recognising persons attempting to enter the country in an irregular manner, before speaking to them. It makes the very communities whose support is necessary for fighting crime reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities.

These discriminatory practices are not only in breach of fundamental rights standards, they also have an extremely damaging impact on the minority communities targeted, leaving innocent individuals feeling fearful, humiliated and alienated. They also reinforce stigmatisation and criminalisation by the general public of entire groups of people and an ‘us-versus-them’ discourse.

In addition, ethnic profiling is an ineffective and even counter-productive security strategy. Discriminatory stops and searches in the context of counter-terrorism have produced few terrorism charges and no convictions. When police treat an entire group of people as suspicious, they are more likely to miss dangerous persons who do not fit the profile. Ethnic profiling also affects the trust of entire communities, and develops fear of law enforcement among youth and children. It makes the very communities whose support is necessary for fighting crime reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. Procedural justice research shows that when citizens see the police as more legitimate, they are more likely to comply with police directives and the law. For this to happen, citizens should be treated with dignity and respect and they should trust that the police are truly operating in their best interests.

What about our fundamental rights as Europeans?

The European Union has so far been reluctant to address the issue of ethnic profiling, claiming it is a national competence. As the EU has increased its reach on police cooperation and border control, and because ethnic profiling is a matter of discrimination, for which the EU has competence, we believe there is scope for an exchange of standards at EU level. Because ethnic profiling is a matter of discrimination, for which the EU has competence, there is scope for an exchange of standards at EU level.

We need states to champion this issue at the European level, with the involvement of the European Commission, the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. Developing EU-wide standards on fair and efficient policing would ensure that EU equality norms are implemented in practice. It would help to restore the feeling of belonging to a common European society, for all people living in Europe.

Last week, police, state officials and civil society activists met in the European Parliament to discuss ethnic profiling for the first time since 2009. Some states also drew the issue to the attention of the EU High Level Group on Racism, Xenophobia and Other Forms of Intolerance. We hope these states will continue to champion an impetus for change to ensure fair and effective policing on the ground.

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