BRUSSELS – Several years ago, as terrorism, immigration, and unrest in suburban Paris were at the top of the news in France, a French police officer confided to a researcher: “If you consider different levels of trafficking, it is obviously done by blacks and Arabs. If you are on the road and see a black man or a man with Arabic features, you say to yourself, ‘He doesn’t look French,’ and then you might stop him to see if he has papers.”
This police officer was describing a textbook example of “ethnic profiling”: law enforcement officials use of stereotypes, rather than specific information about behavior, in deciding to stop, search, or detain people.
Ethnic profiling is illegal in Europe. It is ineffective in apprehending criminals. It is counter-productive in the campaign against terrorism. But police officers across Europe continue to use it.
The inefficiency of ethnic profiling was highlighted in early May, when the British government released figures showing that, of the more than 117,000 police stops made between 2007 and 2008, only 72 led to an arrest for terrorism-related offences.
Other major European countries do not collect data on police stops broken down according to the targets’ ethnic or religious background. But private research and anecdotal reports provide a frighteningly similar picture.
A massive data-mining exercise in Germany from 2001 to 2003 trawled through personal information on 8.3 million people and failed to find a single terrorist. Stops and searches conducted under counter-terrorism powers in Europe have produced few terrorism charges and no convictions.
Separate studies in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States have concluded that ethnic profiling wastes time and resources.
As a new report by the Open Society Justice Initiative shows, by targeting ethnic minorities, police alienate some of the very people on whom they depend for cooperation and intelligence.
And by pre-selecting fixed categories of people for heightened scrutiny, the authorities overlook those who do not fit the profile.
A young Spanish man who is a member of an ethnic minority group put it this way: “I worry when I go on the street that the police will stop me and ask me for my papers because of the color of my skin, by my tone of skin, by my way of walking.”
Given its failings, why is ethnic profiling so widespread? The answer is simple. When the police use ethnic profiling, they project an image of being tough on crime and terrorism. This appeases public opinion, which demands robust anti-terrorism action.
Following the September 2001 attacks in New York, and again after the bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, law-enforcement authorities across Europe launched mass-arrest operations, undertook widespread surveillance of mosques, carried out stops and searches of people who appeared to be Muslim, and used other intrusive measures that disrupted the lives of – and in many cases humiliated – law-abiding European citizens.
As public anxiety has abated, and senior officials have felt less pressure to show that they are doing something, the most flagrant abuses have declined. But such practices are still being applied to a lesser degree, and they can be pulled out of the arsenal whenever political or social conditions dictate.
Fortunately, some of Europe’s leaders recognize the problem. In late April, the European Parliament issued a report highlighting the danger that unrestricted data mining that relies on racial, ethnic, or national origin would subject innocent people to arbitrary stops, travel restrictions, and bans on employment or banking. The report called for legislation to protect against ethnic profiling.
The solution is not to ignore the threat of terrorism, but to address the threat more intelligently. Over the past two years, a project that our organization undertook with police forces and civil-society groups in Hungary and Spain found that, when stops were systematically monitored and data publicly reported, the proportion of stops that produced an arrest or other law-enforcement outcome actually increased. Police work became more efficient.
This makes sense. When officers are required to articulate grounds for suspicion, they are more likely to rely on behavioral factors rather than prejudice.
In the future, the European Union and its member states should fund more collaboration between police and minority communities. The EU should combat radicalization by addressing exclusion, not by conflating conservative religious faith with terrorism. And it should make clear that police may not use ethnic, racial, or religious stereotypes.
By treating people as suspicious purely because of who they are, how they look, or where they pray, rather than what they do or have done, ethnic profiling threatens the very ethos of the EU, a union firmly rooted in values of liberty, democracy, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
James A. Goldston is the executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.