Is police work possible without racial/ethnic profiling? A glance at Great Britain

In October 2012 the administrative appeals tribunal of Rhineland-Palatinate decided that identity checks which are solely carried out on grounds of phenotypic characteristics such as skin colour are not in accordance with the German Basic Law Article 3 subparagraph 3. A young black German citizen had taken legal action after an identity check was carried out by the Federal Police and won the case. The court’s decision is regarded as precedent-setting for future lawsuits. Since then, the question is: How can the police work without racial/ethnic profiling?

The most obvious answer would be to remove section 22 (1a)1 from the Federal Police Act and to refrain from identity checks in train stations, railway tracks or at airports. This is demanded by the Bureau for the Implementation of Equal Treatment (BUG) and the Initiative Black People in Germany (ISD) in their petition on ‘racial/ethnic profiling’. This petition was submitted to the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag in November 2012 as this law enables the Federal Police to perform identity checks independent from suspicion even though the Schengen Borders Code2 prohibits doing so explicitly. Furthermore, policemen do not always stop thinking in stereotypes at work and therefore fall back on clichés such as the ‘drug-dealing African’ and the ‘Muslim terrorist’ - a dilemma that requires an immediate clarification and change.

Certainly section 22 of the Federal Police Act won’t vanish over night. It has to be in the interest of the Police itself to avoid racist controls. For this purpose, it takes more than sensitization and training sessions for Federal Policemen. But how should we otherwise implement police work without racial/ethnic profiling?

A glance at Great Britain could help to develop concrete proposals for Germany. In April 1993 the 18-year-old black Briton Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death at a bus stop in London. It was only in 2012 that two of five suspects were sentenced.

The London Police were vehemently criticised for their behaviour while investigating the racially-motivated murder. Any racist motivation was denied, evidence and witness statements were not taken seriously. Owing to public pressure, a committee of inquiry was convened in 1997 which published a report with recommendations two years later. The report was mainly directed at the British Police.

The British Home Office urged police forces to implement these recommendations. They cover all areas of police work. Changes in structure, working methods and the Police’s liability towards society have been made. The communication with relatives of the victims and the report and statistical acquisition of racially-motivated crimes has been improved; the recruitment of people from so-called minority communities has been increased and the methods of identity checks have been changed.

For instance, a database has been established, centrally gathering all identity checks carried out by the police. Information on the identity checks includes the name of the inspecting officer, the reason for the check and information about the controlled person. Personal data of the controlled person remains anonymous and is not made public.

Details on the ethnicity may be given as long as the controlled person so desires and defines his/her identity himself/herself. The controlled person receives a copy of the recorded information that reveals which groups of people are frequently controlled. Likewise this means that people concerned have clarity by which officer they have been controlled and – if desired – can file a complaint. Another recommendation aims at inducing an information campaign performed by police in order to give the public sufficient information on the legal

British statistics of the past years show that for example in London a disproportionate number of people having a ‘black and minority ethnic background’ (as ethnic minorities are called in Great Britain) have been controlled. Consequently the Home Office urged to undertake counter-measures. Owing to the continuous data gathering, developments can be observed and by publishing the anonymous data, NGOs are able to interact.

Moreover, the Home Office released information on its website, defining which legal conditions are required to carry out identity checks. Furthermore it is explained how to file a complaint by reason of an identity check. Great value is set upon transparency. The British Equality and Human Rights Commission – which is an independent institution – has the mandate to investigate police practice in identity checks and to examine these from a human rights perspective. Broad and critical analyses have been published and submitted to the government.

Today in Great Britain complaints against policemen are not handled and investigated by the police itself. Due to a recommendation of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the former Police Complaints Authority (PCA) has been replaced by an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

The IPCC is structurally independent of the police and has encouraged filing complaints in case of abusive behaviour of policemen. Nevertheless, critics claim that the IPCC rather analyses complaints from the police’s perspective than from the complainants’ point of view.

Even in Great Britain such measures are subject to political changes. Erosions have become noticeable during the past few years. These experiences could – despite all the criticism – advance the work on racial/ethnic profiling in Germany and could help to initiate necessary, goal-oriented and sustainable measures.

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