Tech & Rights

#MeAndMyRights: Ethnic Profiling

Ethnic profiling isn't just racist, it's bad, counterproductive policing that helps terrorists. The good news: with proper training, security services can target people on the basis of evidence, not colour, and do a better job of keeping us safe.

by Israel Butler

Ethnic profiling refers to a situation where the security services use their powers to stop or search an individual or to search their home or property because of that person’s ethnicity, rather than because of any real evidence that this person might be involved in a crime. It amounts to racial discrimination and it is illegal. Most recently, French security services appear to have been using ethnic profiling when conducting thousands of raids of peoples’ property based on what seems little more than the fact that they (appear to be) Muslim.

This does not mean that a person’s ethnicity can’t be part of a suspect description, along with other characteristics like height, age, clothing or hair colour, used by the police. The difference is that a suspect description is made up of evidence that a particular individual has been involved in a crime, such as CCTV footage or a witness statement.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

In contrast, ethnic profiling refers to a situation where the police stop or search a person or their property just because they belong to a particular ethnic or religious group, such as being black or Muslim. When the security services use ethnic profiling, they are saying that simply belonging to a particular ethnic group makes you a criminal or terrorist suspect. The law requires the police to use their powers where there is real evidence of a crime. This evidence could be someone behaving in a suspicious way, like actively trying to avoid the police, or being overly nervous or avoiding eye contact during airport security, or swapping bags with someone. Mere skin colour or appearance does not constitute evidence of criminal activity.

Research shows that ethnic profiling is ineffective, increases the threat to security and probably contributes to factors that make people vulnerable to radicalisation. When police use ethnic profiling, they target a higher proportion of individuals from the ‘suspect’ ethnicity, and fewer individuals from the majority population or other minorities. Some studies have examined what happens when police have stopped using ethnicity as a criterion and instead used objective evidence of criminal activity. The results change significantly. The overall number of searches or stops carried out by security services falls, the number of offences detected (i.e. the effectiveness of the stops) increases, and the disproportionality with which minorities are targeted compared to members of the majority population falls significantly.

Ethnic profiling is inefficient because it results in fewer criminals being caught. It is ineffective because it causes security services to focus their attention disproportionately on innocent individuals who belong to the targeted ethnicity, while suspects from the majority or other minority populations escape scrutiny. What’s more, research shows that individuals involved with violent extremism related to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State belong to a large variety of nationalities and ethnicities, including (white) Western converts. In fact, Western converts are more likely to resort to violent extremism than those brought up Muslim. Once attackers become aware that the authorities are singling out certain ethnic minorities, they adapt their behaviour to avoid detection – for example, by choosing attackers from a different ethnicity.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

Ethnic profiling has been used on a large scale in Germany, the USA and more recently in France. Despite targeting tens of thousands of people on the basis of their ethnicity, none of these operations have actually led to the prosecution of terrorist offences.

As well as wasting resources and diverting attention away from potential perpetrators, ethnic profiling is likely to be counterproductive in the long run. It is well documented that innocent individuals who are subject to the use of police powers to stop-and-search or raid their property, feel humiliated and resentful when they believe that their ethnicity is the main reason they have been singled out. Individuals also report that they come to distrust the police and feel alienated and marginalised from their community and the nation. A further consequence appears to be an increase in discrimination and hate crime from the general public (which is often under-reported because of a lack of trust in police) that academics suggest results in part because racial profiling appears to legitimise discrimination by members of the public. And once people stop trusting the police, they become far less likely to cooperate with security services, for example by reporting suspicious behaviour or coming forward as a witness. The increased marginalisation and the perception that the police cannot be relied on to protect their communities against discrimination and hate crime further compounds feelings of injustice and alienation from national identity, which plays a role in radicalisation (more on that next time).

If you’d like more in-depth information or would like to follow up on the evidence and studies we refer to, you can take a look at our full report ‘Security through Human Rights’ here.

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