Which way forward on racial profiling?
December 6, 2012 — Comment
Written by Liz Fekete
A review of the major development in initiatives against racial profiling in European policing.
Black and Asian kids from poor neighbourhoods repeatedly stopped and searched by police in the UK, identity card checks on people of Muslim appearance in central Paris, or of Muslims outside mosques in Germany, round-ups of migrants without papers in Greece, abusive and insulting behaviour towards Roma during stop and search in Bulgaria – the details may vary, in terms of each country, but the overall narrative is the same: visible minorities singled out for police identity checks simply because of skin colour, ethnicity, national origin or religion. Up until recently, racial (or ethnic) profiling by the police has been a given in Europe. But today, thanks to a decades-long struggle by ethnic minorities against discrimination in everyday encounters with law enforcement officers, policing practices are under challenge as never before. Intergovernmental agencies like the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as a growing number of NGOs and foundations (the European Roma Rights Centre, the European Network Against Racism, the Open Society Institute Justice Initiative, Human Rights Watch, Stopwatch in the UK, SOS Racismo in Spain, ReachOut and KOP Berlin in Germany, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, to name but a few), are also providing detailed evidence and regularly speaking out whenever racial profiling takes place. So it should come as no surprise that 2012 has seen these diverse initiatives to end racial profiling in law enforcement making their mark.
In the UK (where stop and search was left virtually untouched by the 1999 Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, despite that report’s recognition of institutional racism in policing), young people’s negative view of police because of repeated and often humiliating stops and searches is now being discussed, partly as a belated acknowledgement that the practice was a causal factor in the August 2011 ‘riots’. In the summer of 2012, sixteen organisations (most of them working directly with young people) wrote to the home secretary, describing stop and search as ‘discriminatory’, ‘dehumanising’, destructive of trust and the catalyst for resentment, the very ‘embodiment of the negative relationships young people have with the police’. In particular, the signatories called on the government to suspend section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which allows officers to stop and search young people without even the safeguard of reasonable suspicion.
Germany and France – ripe for change
In France and Germany, where important coalitions – of NGOs, foundations and legal experts – are campaigning around the issue, police and politicians are now under pressure to accept changes to procedures in identity checks, as well as to create formal mechanisms for police accountability (such as keeping account of stops and searches, publishing data on complaints against the police, creating an independent police complaints system and a mandatory inquest system following any death in police custody). Perhaps Germany, more than any other country in Europe, has the potential at the moment for real systemic change, as the long-established culture of racial profiling based on passport (identity card) checks comes under challenge from a confident generation of young ethnic minority Germans. According to Tahir Della of the Initiative of Black People in Germany, discrimination in identity checks is an aberration in ‘Germany’s current multicultural and multiethnic reality’. Della spoke in response to a test case brought by a 26-year-old black German architecture student (the young man has chosen not to reveal his identity) who, in a Rosa Parks moment, and fed up by repeated humiliations (he had been asked to show his ID card at least ten times in two years on the same train journey) decided to take a stand. In December 2010, he was approached by two federal police officers carrying out checks on a train travelling between Kassel to Frankfurt, who asked to see his ID. He refused, unless they could explain the reason for their request. This the police officers refused, instead taking him to a police station and threatening to hold him there until he showed his ID. (The student told the police that their methods were reminiscent of those of the Nazi SS, leading to a charge, later dropped, of slander.) But while a lower court rejected the student’s complaint (stating that racial profiling was legitimate in identity checks if the purpose was to catch illegal immigrants), the Higher Administrative Court of Rhineland-Palatinate in Koblenz came to an altogether different verdict in October 2012. It ruled that racial profiling was indeed unlawful on the grounds that the use of skin colour as a decisive factor leading to an identity check was a clear violation of Article 3 of the German Constitution, which states: ‘No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions’. Since the Koblenz decision, it is possible to detect a sea-change in attitudes towards racial profiling. For instance, the media have widely reported and discussed the case of Derege Wevelsiep, a German-Ethiopian man who says he was abused and knocked unconscious in front of his wife and child during a passport check in Frankfurt, and the parliament in Hesse has discussed this case in the context of calls for a more diverse police force and for an ombudsman to investigate complaints of police racism.
Despite opposition from one police trade union, the majority of German police seem to have accepted the Koblenz decision, and a representative of the federal police force apologised to the student (who did not seek compensation). However, the French police trade unions have not reacted so well to calls for change. Tellingly, the police trade union seems to have a stranglehold on government policy, with President Hollande reneging on a pre-election pledge (brought in to satisfy the demands of the Socialist Party youth wing and a coalition of youth organisations who mobilised the youth vote in the presidential election) to reform identity checks to ensure ‘procedures respectful of citizens’. The proposed reform, as Rachel Neild and Jonathan Birchall of the OSI Justice Initiative report, was in itself modest (in order to track police stops, the police would have had to issue an authorisation for each check); nevertheless, the reform would have been a start in building bridges between police and young people, particularly those from a North African background, whose members feature so prominently in the catalogue of those who have died in police custody. A coalition of NGOs and legal groups for reform (including GISTI, Graines de France, Human Rights Watch, La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, la Maison pour un Développement Solidaire, Open Society Justice Initiative, the Syndicat des Avocats de France and the Syndicat de la Magistrature) is demanding, amongst other things, changes to the legal framework regulating stops (article 72-2 of the Penal Procedures Code).
These groups’ concern about ethnic profiling had earlier received academic support through the publication of a major study, Force de l’ordre: une anthropologie de la police des quartiers, by Didier Fassin, director of studies at the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. Fassin had been authorised (though revoked in 2007) to study policing in the Ile-de-France area and followed the operations of several police units, mostly dealing with street crime and public security. These police officers, according to what Fassin observed, were under pressure to keep busy and meet targets. And it was constant identity checks and stops and searches that enabled them to realise these targets and to respond to ‘official demands for statistics and for objectively measured interventions’. But these checks, argued Fassin, when carried out solely on the basis of physical appearance, were counter-productive and tension-generating; a ‘brutal and arbitrary’, ‘rough and humiliating’ way to deal with youngsters. What Fassin also observed was that young people from a middle-class background were more likely to complain of police racism than young people from the estates (banlieues). Dealing with police harassment and racism was seen by the youth of the banlieues as something of a rite of passage, ‘one of those apprenticeships they have to go through, with their parents instructing them “Don’t react to police provocations”.’ Furthermore, the stakes were just too high, and those on the estates would not risk criminalisation by making a protest, as a complaint generally resulted in a charge of ‘insulting behaviour’ or ‘disobedience’, with magistrates siding with the police. In fact, the charge of disobeying a police officer, in Fassin’s view, was not a legitimate criminal offence but ‘a strong tool of social control’, because it ‘allow[ed] for a reversal of the truth on the question of violence’.
In October 2012, in Berlin, at a two-day workshop on racial profiling organised by a coalition of campaigning organisations, including ReachOut and KOP Berlin, a young man in the audience took exception to a proposal that a campaign against racial profiling in Germany should be part and parcel of a wider campaign for police accountability. He argued that all policing was by nature authoritarian and that instead of reforming the police we should abolish it. But the long-term implications of failing to tackle everyday discriminatory practices, or allowing atrophy of those mechanisms which at least allow for a measure of police accountability, can now be seen in Greece, where a culture of impunity has developed in policing, with terrifying consequences for migrants and visible minorities.
Greece – racial profiling unleashed
Over the years, NGOs in Greece have been left to battle regressive developments alone, with precious little criticism of anti-democratic trends in policing (and the military) coming from within the EU. But now, with the current Greek financial crisis, the results of a collective failure to stem authoritarianism can be witnessed. The government has unleashed ethnic profiling on a massive national scale. In August, it instructed police to launch Operation Xenios Zeus (named after the mythical Greek god of guests and travellers), a nationwide stop and search operation to detect, detain and deport ‘illegal immigrants’, which will last until the end of the year. It seems that the centre-right government is trying to outflank the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (which currently has eighteen MPs in the Greek parliament) by winning police support through anti-immigrant rhetoric. The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe is currently investigating multiple complaints of police racism and collusion with Golden Dawn, including claims that Golden Dawn has infiltrated the police at various levels, and that fascist elements are being used by the police to attack leftwing demonstrators and act as agents provocateurs during demonstrations, provoking clashes between demonstrators and the police, or even between demonstrators themselves. Police are further accused of torturing anti-fascists detained at an Athens police station; of outsourcing law enforcement and victim protection (particularly if the alleged perpetrator was ‘foreign’) to Golden Dawn; of turning away the victims of racist violence (or charging them a fee to file a complaint); of assaulting migrants and refugees during immigration raids, and in many cases, of being the perpetrators of racist violence themselves. Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros famously declared during an interview with Newsnight’s Paul Mason that ‘50 to 60 per cent of the police are now with us’.
Launched in Athens at the beginning of August, Operation Xenios Zeus was soon extended to other cities, with three detention centres set up by the government (in Corinth, Xanthi and Komotini) to accommodate those arrested. According to police statistics, in the first month of Operation Xenios Zeus, 16,836 foreign nationals were brought in for questioning. Of these, 2,144 were arrested for not fulfilling legal residence requirements, suggesting to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) that over 80 per cent of those taken to a police station for questioning were legal residents who had been stopped and searched and subjected to interrogation due to their perceived ethnicity. A number of other international bodies such as AI, Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR have also complained of police ‘discrimination on the basis of perceived ethnicity’.
Amongst cases reported in the press:
- Gul Zeb and Khaled Masud, detained at Aegaleo police station in Athens, were abused and subjected to violence. Officers allegedly gripped Zeb’s fingers with pliers and shaved off Masud’s moustache.
- Detainees suspected of being illegal immigrants and held at Corinth lacked warm water and sufficient food and medicine, and had no access to information or lawyers.
- At the detention centre in Komotini, up to 500 young men, mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan, who had been arrested under Operation Xenios were still in detention after three months. A protest which broke out on 24 November and lasted for three days was quelled by riot police deploying tear gas.
- An Iraqi national, residing lawfully in Greece, was rounded up in Athens and taken to Komotini, 380 km from the capital. On release, he had to hitch-hike back to Athens, as he had no money. On 12 August, he was found on the motorway outside Xanthi (not far from Komotini) with serious injuries, having been beaten up. Staff at the hospital raised the money for him to return to Athens.
From racial profiling to religious profiling
If current realities in Greece speak of collective failure, the same pattern and same failures are now emerging, but on a pan-European level and with official EU endorsement. The war on terror, which has led to new anti-terrorist laws and additional public security measures across Europe, has given rise to an additional tier of stop and search and identity checks via religious profiling, which is superimposed on to existing policing methods based on racial profiling. Religious profiling (where racial characteristics are often used as a proxy for religion) is justified in terms of national security, and tacitly approved by the EU as a means of fighting ‘Islamic terrorism’. This makes it harder to delegitimise than ‘pure’ racial profiling, especially as the public has internalised media frameworks that portray Muslims as ‘enemy citizens’, and has been acclimatised to see emergency measures as a proportionate and effective way to deal with terrorism. So what we face today is a situation in which significant inroads have been made into those forms of racial profiling that operate as a tool of everyday policing, while religious profiling linked to emergency measures and anti-terrorist laws is dramatically escalating, and even entering new areas of policing. Could it be that we are witnessing, across Europe, the kind of collective failure to stem disproportionate and authoritarian measures that eventually gives rise to the culture of impunity in policing that now exists in Greece?
In the UK, in the British Asian communities it is now de rigueur to talk of the new offence of ‘Travelling While Asian’. Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gives ‘examining officers’ at ports and airports the power to stop, search and examine an individual in order to determine whether or not he or she is concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism. Data on the extent and use of Schedule 7 is limited and, until recently, the Home Office only provided data on examinations lasting for over an hour. In 2010, for the first time, figures were published for the total number of Schedule 7 examinations, revealing that 85,557 examinations took place in ports in Great Britain in 2009/10, of which 2,687 lasted for more than one hour.
But there is a new area of concern – that religious profiling is now creeping into public order policing. In the UK, Manchester University law lecturer Joanna Gilmore has published her findings on the disproportionate sentencing of young Muslims targeted for arrest through the special police Operation Ute after participating in protests against the Israeli bombing of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Similarly, in Brussels, there are concerns that neighbourhoods perceived to be Muslim are targeted for special policing prior to demonstrations in support of Palestine, to prevent the free movement of people from those neighbourhoods to the demonstration. Are we seeing a new form of religious profiling? A new offence: ‘Demonstrating for Palestine while Muslim’?
In Paris, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) gathered evidence of religious profiling in the policing of a small protest against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons at the Trocadéro, by the Eiffel Tower. Riot police deployed on the day subjected anyone in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower, whose appearance singled them out as Muslim, to identity checks (with many tourists and others in the area stopped and questioned several times). The CCIF subsequently contacted some of the thirty-eight people arrested, many of whom had absolutely nothing to do with the protests, but were visiting the Eiffel Tower (French citizens taking relatives from abroad to visit the tower, for instance), and stopped because of their appearance. The testimony of those arrested presented a grim picture: the Moroccan uncle of a French citizen, visiting the Eiffel tower as a tourist, taken away in handcuffs to the police station where he was held for many hours alongside others before being released; police refusing a woman with heart problems a chair or a glass of water. As CCIF concludes, they were ‘passed like a parcel between the gendarmes and the police, from one police coach to another, searched and checked repeatedly, transported like animals in a humiliating way without knowing where they would be taken, when they would be free, nor the reason for their detention’.
Sign a petition against ethnic/racial profiling in Germany, here.
Download an Open Society Justice Initiative Fact Sheet, ‘The Problem of Ethnic Profiling in Europe’
Download an ENAR Fact sheet on ethnic profiling
Watch a video by Richardo Valsecchi on racial profiling in Germany
Read an interview with the black German architecture student who brought a test case against racial profiling
Read an IRR News story: ‘Collectively opposing stop and search‘
Read an IRR News story: ‘Gaza protesters defence campaign launched‘
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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