UN Racism Rapporteur Presents Road Map to End Ethnic Profiling

The UN special rapporteur on racism publishes a thematic report on the use of racial and ethnic profiling by police, with specific recommendations of good practices.

The use of ethnic profiling by the police is discriminatory, stigmatizes minority collectives, undermines these groups’ trust in the police, and is utterly inefficient in preventing crime.

This practice has received much attention from various European and international human rights organizations. The most recent report was just published by the special rapporteur on racism to the United Nations, Mutuma Ruteere. In his report, Ruteere goes beyond merely affirming that these practices exist, that they are illegal and that they should be eradicated: he also provides a road map for states, with a detailed enumeration of measures to be taken, and practical examples from police departments that have put these good practices in use.

Below we summarize these measures in the hopes that they may serve as a guide for police reform in European states to make policing less discriminatory and more effective, more just and more respectful of the human rights of all persons.

Providing police with clear instructions

The regulations governing police activities should be "clear and unambiguous" when it comes to prohibiting ethnic profiling. Police should be required to use objective criteria — with a clear indication of what criteria are valid — in defining "reasonable suspicion" as a requisite for stopping or searching a person.

Independent mechanisms of investigation

The rapporteur believes that a good way to prevent the use of ethnic profiles and to ensure protection for the victims of these practices is to establish independent mechanisms that can supervise police interventions. These should be empowered to receive and investigate complaints and to make binding recommendations. This measure would serve not only to eradicate discriminatory practices, but also other serious violations of human rights (this measure has also been recommended by organizations which seek to eradicate torture.)

Improving police training

Police training should address this question directly, offering agents useful tools for applying objective criteria for reasonable suspicion instead of stereotypes based on ethnicity. Theoretical or general training is insufficient: in the rapporteur’s words, "Practical training tends to be more effective than general training regarding diversity."

Making police accessible to the citizenry

Mechanisms should be created to make the police accessible to society and to generate dialog, especially with communities of people who, for different reasons, are overexposed to police surveillance. Only in this way can police empathize more with these groups and can these groups’ trust in the police be improved.

Documenting police activities

In most European states, when police stop and search a person, whether for his participation in a demonstration or for having a skin color that makes acting officers suspicious, this action remains in a sort of limbo: there is no proof that it has taken place, making it difficult for the object of the stop to complain if he is unhappy with the treatment he received or considers himself a victim of an illegal or discriminatory act.

This could be solved by a very simple measure: the use of stop forms, which, if properly designed and implemented, might also serve to measure and prevent discriminatory biases and improve the effectiveness of police stops. As these forms make note of both the result of the stop and the characteristics of the person being stopped, they provide a clearer picture of the possible disproportionality of stops of minority populations and the effectiveness of stops and searches. This helps to dismantle the false impression held by many officers that minorities have a greater tendency to commit crimes.