Criminal profiling as a part of police work

The creation of criminal profiles is generally a legitimate method of prevention and investigation used by the police. The physical appearance, or unchangeable characteristics, of a (possible) criminal, such as ancestry, language or skin colour, as well as changeable ones, such as behaviour, play a central role. Profiling, however, must be led by the principles of the presumption of innocence and of impartiality, in order to fulfil the demands placed by the rule of law. Consequently, the indicators used to create profiles of suspects and perpetrators must be based on evidence or other sufficient information related to a specific crime. If, however, profiling is not based on substantiated assumptions, but only on the use of unchangeable characteristics such as skin colour or an alleged immigrant background, it represents a form of discrimination. In such a scenario, the terms ‘ethnic profiling’ and ‘racial profiling’ are used, synonymously.


Ethnic profiling in police work

The federal and regional (Land) police have the authority to perform identity checks, stop and search vehicles, perform multiple checks in a crowd, make arrests, perform targeted searches for data and carry out other surveillance measures. In the course of these activities, profiling methods are used in a targeted or preventative manner, which in some cases are based exclusively on ascribed ethnicity or religion and, as a result, affect a disproportional amount of minorities. This contradicts the legal framework for equal treatment. This type of ascription results in the creation of a specific criminal profile on the basis of existing unchangeable characteristics. This, in turn, leads to illegitimate stereotyping and generalisations, whereby an affinity to particular crimes is ascribed to people possessing these unchangeable characteristics. A lack of communication on the part of the police seems to exacerbate the problem. Those affected feel denounced, vulnerable and stigmatised as criminals. The feeling of marginalisation is especially present in cases where those involved are considered ‘strangers’ in their own country. This impedes co-operation in crime fighting between ethnic minorities and the police. It may also lead to a feeling of isolation amongst members of ethnic minorities with respect to the majority population.

Ethnic profiling also runs the risk of strengthening racist tendencies amongst the majority population, as the fact that members of minorities are subject to more frequent checks would suggest that they are more prone to crime. Moreover, excessive profiling in cases of crimes committed by foreign citizens can distract investigators, for several years even, from the possibility that the crime was racially motivated and perpetrated by right-wing extremists, as was the case with the NSU murders.

As previously mentioned, the legitimacy of profiling as a method is not usually called into question. A solid foundation and sufficient evidence must, however, exist for ethnic categorisation to be justified. Ethnic profiling for the purpose of crime-prevention represents an inappropriate means of conducting police work. To counter this, it is imperative that a person’s ascribed ethnicity and/or religion not be employed as the sole, or decisive, criterion for a police check.