The concept of «Racial Profiling» describes all forms of discriminatory controls of persons or vehicles towards groups of people who are perceived as ethnically or religiously “different” by policemen and policewomen.
The term «Racial Profiling» stems from the USA where especially people of African an Latin American descent are affected by police security checks above average. The term «Ethnic Profiling» is used as well. In the European context, besides dark-skinned persons people from the Balkans (especially Roma) as well as Muslims from Arabic countries are affected by unjustified police controls.
You can find more background information about the phenomenon of Racial Profiling in the themed dossier „Racial Profiling“ on humanrights.ch as well as in the findings of the collaborative research group of the Alliance.
Summary of the study: Kollaborative Forschungsgruppe Racial Profiling (2019): Racial Profiling: Erfahrung, Wirkung, Widerstand. Berlin/Bern, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
Racial profiling is a discriminatory and unlawful police practice that receives very little public attention. This study centres around people in Switzerland who experience racist police checks in their everyday lives. We conducted interviews with people who identify themselves as Black, People of Colour, Yenish, Sinto/ezza, Roma, Muslim, Asian or migrants, and sex workers. All of them are affected by similar forms of criminalization. However, they experience police practices in different ways depending on their gender, residence status, nationality and socio-economic background. In addition to the physical experience of stop and searches, this study focuses on the individuals affected and the community and societal consequences and effects of police practices. We also focus on different tactics for dealing with the constant danger of being targeted by the police and individual and collective strategies to resist racist police practices.
“It’s not normal to feel like a criminal in the country you live in.” Gabriel Perreiro
The study of the Collaborative Research Group on Racial Profiling is based on interviews with people who are repeatedly subjected to racist identity checks and body searches by the police. Within the frame of a participatory research setting, the interviewees described how they experience racist police checks as shameful, stigmatizing, and violent. They explained how they experience these in a concrete situation but also in the long term, and how they deal with them. It is clear from the interviewees’ statements that they experience massive discrimination in the course of racial profiling. In the process, constitutional norms such as the presumption of innocence and the human rights principle of equality and equal treatment are violated, and protection against discrimination is de facto suspended. In their accounts of particular incidents, the interviewees also report their fears and anger as well as self-accusations. They explain their strategies and tactics in dealing with the constant danger of being targeted by the police. And last but not least, they report how they defend themselves individually and collectively against the actions of the police and the widespread apathy of society.
The aim of the study is to document the everyday police assaults and their effects, and the practices of resistance of those who are affected. This will counter the usual trivialization of racist identity checks and body searches by representatives of the police and political authorities. To incorporate a wide range of people who repeatedly experience discriminatory police practices, we talked to a variety of people from different communities. Although they share common experiences of police discrimination, their particular accounts of the stereotypes projected onto them and their possibilities of defending themselves against these injustices differ. Specific group-related racisms, as well as factors such as gender, residence status, nationality, and socio-economic status were found to be decisive for the different ways in which identity checks are carried out.
Based on our documentation of people’s experiences with the police, this study raises awareness and encourages society as a whole to look, listen and take responsibility for institutional racism within the police force and speak out against racism. The interviews show how racial profiling primarily negatively affects Black people and People of Colour and also has a negative impact on society as a whole.
“I’ve been scared ever since […], just constantly scared, even though I’m not guilty and do nothing.” Tota Sino
Discriminatory identity checks are not rare exceptions but happen every day. Almost all interviewees reported that they have had to experience many checks. They also talk about friends and relatives who have similar experiences. Nearly all interviewees describe the effects of these police practices as very severe. In the actual situations, these manifest in feelings of humiliation and devaluation, in powerlessness and frustration, and in blaming oneself. But it is not only police harassment that has an immense impact; the public exposure that is often associated with it, the glances and being stared at by passers-by are often described as hurtful as well.
All interviewees report on long-term effects and impacts of identity checks by the police. They describe how they are always plagued by fear of the police and how precautionary restrictions are placed on their freedom of movement in public spaces. Some of them withdraw from the public space, feel socially isolated and left alone with their problems with racial profiling. Many of the interviewees are under enormous pressure to adapt in order to avoid attracting attention and thus being targeted by the police. In addition, some of them suffer financial and other material disadvantages as a result of being constantly under surveillance. In addition, several explain that, due to the checks, their relationship with the police and state authorities is characterized by fundamental mistrust and a loss of trust.
Racial profiling is therefore omnipresent and operative beyond the actual control situations, even in everyday life – as a restriction of freedom and as a danger to one’s own security. The racist practice affects not only those who are checked, but also police officers and observing passers-by. The identity checks and body searches carried out in public create the impression that certain persons (groups) are dangerous. They produce the image of a police force seeking to protect the “normal population” from the supposedly criminal, illegal “others”. In a kind of circular reasoning, the discriminatory checks subsequently appear to be lawful and legitimate, even though they are the actual illegal act.
“I’m not doing this anymore! I don’t show my ID anymore in racial profiling.“ Mohamed Wa Baile
It became clear from our interviews that the frequent and repeated experiences of racial profiling, harassment and oppression also lead people to engagement against these and other forms of racism. Mohamed Wa Baile’s experience, for example, show how he began to defend himself politically against racial profiling using a variety of means – from public actions, educational and cultural events, legal proceedings against police officers, to the (self-)organization of those directly affected together with activists in solidarity.
During the interviews people described a variety of tactics for circumventing police activities and police officers or using different practices to question and resist police interrogations. To analyse the different accounts of our interview partners, we used a broad concept of resistance which also includes aspects of uncontrollability, wilfulness and subversive practices that undermine police interventions. Thus, several interviewees use ways of “camouflaging” themselves in order to attract less attention from the police. Others report how they repeatedly ask police officers for the reason why they are being stopped, point out the illegality of the officers’ actions, or even use paradoxical interventions to challenge them. Some asked bystanders for help or intervened themselves in identity check situations they observed by filming and asking questions.
While a sign reading “For whites only” is considered by everyone as racism, stop and search practices that arbitrarily target people according to skin colour and other supposedly ethnic and religious characteristics are often not recognized as discriminatory. Racial profiling massively restricts many people’s freedom of movement and access to public space. It has severe effects on their lives as equal citizens. This is especially the case for people with precarious residence status. As long as people are criminalized based on racist assumptions and as long as preventing human rights violations and discrimination is not the primary focus of police action, it is necessary to actively combat discriminatory surveillance as well as stop and search practices. Based on their experiences with the police, almost all interviewees have formulated demands that directly address the police or made concrete suggestions on how we can all take responsibility in situations of racial profiling. Wakur Bari, for example, explains: “There is a lot you can do as a third party […]: intervene, comment, make a written statement, […] – in such a way that everyone can see it – document and share, even film it!”