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Nationalism and crime: an artificial link

15.02.2010    source: www.dt.ua
Boiko Todorov
Not only does ethnic profiling violate people’s rights and dignity, but it is also an inefficient method of protecting public order, wasting police resources while leaving many crimes unsolved

A black guy and two white colleagues were sitting in their office near a petrol station when they heard a woman cry for help, saying she’s being robbed. They hurtled after the apparent criminal who was white, and the black guy managed to catch him. By that stage the police had turned up, and one of the officers grabbed the black guy, assuming him to be the criminal.

This case happened several years ago in Canada, however such situations occur everyday and everywhere. Assumptions made about people of a certain race, that, for example, they’re more likely to commit crimes, are, unfortunately, common in most law enforcement bodies in the world.

The author notes that the issue of ethnic profiling came to the fore towards the end of the twentieth century with an increase in abuse from law enforcement bodies. Such abuse is seen each time a policeman stops, arrests, searches or questions a person solely because they think that a person of that ethnic or racial group is more likely to commit certain crimes.  He stresses that we are not talking about cases where race is mentioned as one of the features enabling us to identify a suspected criminal, but where ethnic or racial communities are seen as being more inclined to commit certain crimes.

Ethnic profiling takes different forms – stopping pedestrians or drivers who seem to be of a particular ethnic group; a contemptuous attitude from the law enforcement bodies; intimidation of people detained; use of excessive force or lengthy detention of people from certain ethnic groups; increased attention to certain crimes or districts of a city since it’s easier to prosecute the residents there.  All of these things are essentially discrimination.

A lot of countries and international organizations make efforts to understand and prevent determining potential criminals on ethnic grounds. In the United Kingdom after inadequate response by the police to the clearly racially-motivated murder of a teenager (Stephen Lawrence – translator) in 1993 the government initiated an investigation which revealed the existence of “institutional racism” in the police force.  In the USA strict measures to combat racial and ethnic discrimination were prompted by a civil law suit in 1998 which established that while black drivers make up only 17% of the population, 70% of them get stopped and searched by the police. In Canada local police bodies carried out an investigation into cases of ethnic profiling, while in France civic organizations are stepping up a campaign against such practice.  The European Court of Human Rights has found that cases where race is the deciding factor in law enforcement measures are discriminatory.

In Ukraine despite its ethnic diversity (ethnic minorities make up 22.2% of the population) and the rising number of immigrants, at the state level there is still no programme for increasing the level of tolerance in society. The first attempt to involve Ukrainian police officers in resolving problems regarding ethnic stereotypes (through an analysis of internal subordinate acts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MIA] in the context of ethnic prejudice) was only carried out last year as a joint project by the British Council in Ukraine, the MIA and the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research. The research group identified 14 MIA subordinate acts based on ethnic profiling principles which directly identified race or ethnic origin as a key factor in determining who to suspect.

The author stresses that this approach is not only discriminatory, but also ineffective, based as it is not on proof, but on stereotypes. He points out that the attitude to certain ethnic groups varies widely from country to country.

He points out that such practice should not be seen as reflecting racist attitudes rampant in the law enforcement bodies. There are plenty of factors leading to imbalance, these including social inequality of particular minorities, differences in their use of the public realm (for example, certain groups are much more likely to use public transport, meaning that they are more often seen at railway or bus stations), exaggeration by the media, the general rhetoric from nationalists claiming a direct link between certain groups and crime, etc.

Not only does ethnic profiling violate people’s rights and dignity, but it is also an inefficient method of protecting public order. The author says that regardless of excuses given, the practice wastes police resources while leaving many crimes unsolved. In the US, he notes, in 1998 the customs service examined their practice of searching and discovered that 43% of those searched were Afro-Americans or Latin Americans. It prohibited ethnic profiling and brought in surveillance based on the passengers’ behaviour, as well as improving supervision over decisions to stop and search passengers. Over the following two years there were 75% less searches, but the success rate rose from almost 5% to over 13%.

Todorov points out that the argument often cited about statistics proving that certain ethnic groups commit a large percentage of some crimes is based on faulty logic. You don’t decide that most men are rapists on the grounds that all rapists are men.

He stresses that empirical studies in many countries have shown not only that the police more often pursue certain ethnic groups, but that increased attention to these groups does not guarantee higher levels of crimes solved crime prevention. 

He adds that attempts to oversimplify the problem, claiming it to just be a consequence of a faulty perception of reality, means that the opinions of some social groups have no significance for society. Even if it were just due to faulty perception, the faith of people in the rule of law is decisive for adherence to the law.  The more minorities suffer from bodies created to protect public order, the more they are made to understand that society does not trust them and treats them without respect, the less motivated they are to obey the law. Thus attributing a higher level of crime to certain ethnic minorities can lead to their alienation and lower self-esteem as citizens and members of society.

Just and effective maintenance of order cannot be based on stereotypes. International experience shows that demands on law enforcement bodies to use the principle of “grounds for reasonable suspicion” significantly reduce the level of discrimination against ethnic and racial groups. A number of other measures such as monitoring police detentions and searches, raising the level of education and staff training on issues of racial diversity and multiculturalism, measures aimed at developing trust between law enforcement bodies and ethnic communities (including preventive programmes), effective measures for submitting and reacting to complaints, also lead to a reduction in the application of ethnic profiling.

Somewhat abridged from an article by Boiko Todorov, Centre for Research into Democracy (Bulgaria)

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