Democracy & Justice

Bodies Under Suspicion: the Human Cost of Racial Profiling

A recent report based on personal experiences, denounces how racial profiling is a common police practice in Spain and proposes measures to tackle it.

by Rights International Spain

Rights International Spain (RIS) in collaboration with Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) has presented "Bajo sospecha: el impacto de las prácticas policiales discriminatorias en España" [Under suspicion: the impact of discriminatory police practices in Spain], a report that describes the impact of racial profiling on peoples lives in Spain through the experience of people who suffer racially motivated police stops on a daily basis. The report gathers testimonies from individuals in different parts of the country and exposes the multiple consequences generated by this police practice.

One of the interviewees, Mamadou Moustapha, explains how racial profiling is frequent in the neighborhood of San Francisco (Bilbao), "one of my flatmates arrived [home] and told me that he had been stopped and searched again, I had also been stopped that morning, and at night, another friend arrived and told us that he had been stopped too. We wonder why they stop us all the time. As we have already explained, this police practice is what is known as racial profiling, according to which, police officers do not stop you based on reasonable grounds (because you might have committed a crime or have been caught doing so), on the contrary, they stop you and it is you who has to prove your innocence, thus, your body bears the shadow of permanent suspicion.

In Madrid, the Effective Police Identifications Programme (PIPE) that had recently been implemented by the Municipal Police and was aimed towards ending discrimination in police identifications, has just been abolished by the new consistory. For seven months (November-May) it had been functioning as a pilot programme in the Ciudad Lineal district, but the intention was to extend it to the other districts of the city. PIPE, which still works in cities such as Fuenlabrada, where it began in 2008, aims to improve police action procedures in this area and to guarantee the rights of a diverse society through the implementation of the forms that officers have to fill in, and which provide data on stops made on public spaces, in order to measure whether disproportionate pressure is exerted on certain groups.

Those who are not frequently stopped by the police, may feel an identification stop is no big deal. "If you haven't done anything wrong -they say- just show your documents, and off you go." However, the report reveals that those who are targeted due to their racial appearance experience a very different reality. Thus, profiling sends a very clear message: if you are not part of the "norm", you are dangerous and must be controlled. An experience that has a profound impact on individuals' sense of belonging because, as the investigation explains, "no matter what you do, you will never be part of society".

"There are 20 year olds who don't leave their comfort zone. There is an imaginary border delimiting where they feel comfortable, and leaving it is unthinkable. But if they don't leave their comfort zone, their employment possibilities are practically nil. It influences everything", explains Alfonso Amaya, who works in an association for young Roma in the neighbourhood of Sant Roc, Badalona. David Garfella Gil, local police inspector in Valencia points out that "sometimes police carry out stops in places where crimes don't occur, just so that the majority of the population feels safe".

Malick is one of those people who suffer constant police discriminatory stops, he describes in the report one of which particularly affected him. "It was at 7:00 in the morning, and I was going to work. I was on the subway and went out at Tribunal station (Madrid), like everybody, I took the escalators. Suddenly four secret police officers ran towards me and grabbed me. They told me they were looking for a black guy". The video which accompanies the report begins with his testimony. "They stop you because you're black. They stop you, they search you in front of everyone, they humiliate you", he adds. It is a shameful and humiliating experience for those who suffer it, and it implies a whole lot of time wasted too while the officers carry out the discriminatory stops. That day, Malick was 30 minutes late for work.

Isabelle and Esther Mamadou have also experienced firsthand the consequences of racial profiling. In September 2017 they were in the neighbourhood of Lavapiés (Madrid) along with other representatives of different human rights organizations when they witnessed the police racially profiling several black people. They decided to intervene, and in return were on the receiving end of sexist and racist insults from the police officers. That day they had come to provide training on the use of racial profiling by the police. "Those situations make you feel helpless, embarrassed, as you feel the gaze of other people that stop to watch the situation, and you feel completely alone. You are certain that no one will intervene if something happens. You feel insecurity and impunity, a mixture of fear and helplessness due to the inability to respond, describes Esther.

Mamadou Moustapha also describes a similar feeling of great insecurity and lack of protection. One of the direct consequences of suffering these constant stops is the perception of public space, "it affects you when it comes to going out, you feel it's best to stay at home, but that doesn't help, because in the end, you have to go out on the streets and on the public space to try and find a way of making a living". Something that Ngoy Ngoma agrees on, and adds that he avoids passing through certain spaces, "here, in Valencia, I no longer pass by the big bus station, I prefer to walk through the river area, although that means soiling my shoes. I have been expelled from the public space. For Delia Servini, being identified in a raid was the beginning of a journey that generated a police record due to her irregular administrative situation, and ended up in a migrant detention center (CIE) with several deportation attempts. She remembers how she barely went out on the street, "the few times I went out, I took taxis. I usually stayed at work. I would go out two hours on Sundays during work breaks. I was locked up for four years, enslaved, that was how police control affected me.

Moving forward

Mimoun Amrouni, the representative of the Mesa por la Convivencia de Fuenlabrada, also participated in the presentation of the report and pointed out the three elements that have allowed the success of PIPE in this locality: political will, institutional conviction on the part of the police and the commitment of civil society. The consolidation of trust between all parties is what has facilitated the project's progress. In this sense, the report is not a mere description of a reality, it also makes a series of recommendations to address racial profiling. One of the tools recommended are the stop forms, which in Fuenlabrada have managed to reduce disproportionality in this police practice. In other regions of Spain, both conservative and progressive governments have also adopted PIPE, acknowledging that evidence-based policing is fairer.

Among the recommendations, there is one which is crucial: the explicit recognition of the use of racial profiling. The constant denial of this fact not only perpetuates unjust practices, but also implies the denial of the experiences of people like the ones who shared theirs throughout the report. At the same time, it recommends the explicit legal prohibition of the use of racial profiling and the establishment of clear limits on police powers to stop and search people. These policing practices are best monitored and dealt with on the basis of objective empirical data, obtained by documenting police stops. There is also a need to strengthen safeguards and complaints mechanisms by creating more accessible and effective channels, and an independent, specialised and accessible police monitoring mechanism.