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Assessment of Individual Differences by the Police – Should ethnicity weigh in?

In the wake of the murder on George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American from Minneapolis, protests erupted against excessive police violence, lack of police accountability and racism. The protests arose in not only the USA where the incident happened but also other countries worldwide, amongst them the Netherlands. While not being faced with pervasive excessive police violence, also here discrimination remains a part of the everyday reality of many minority groups.

While such an overt act as a daylight killing of a black person is immediately faced with widespread condemnation, it is less so the case with institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism can be described as the covert rules, norms and systems within society, which contribute towards the facilitation of racism. Examples of such discrimination are for example minorities facing more barriers in being invited to job interviews, being promoted, or stereotypical caricature representation in the media. The harmful effects are easily dismissed or minimized by some, especially seen the subtle nature. For those faced with the consequences however, the pervasiveness is not as easily dismissed.

When considering the police, one of the key features protested against in the Netherlands is ethnic profiling. In their fight against crime, police officers aim to distinguish those individuals who are likely to either plan or have committed criminal acts. In order to do so, they work with criminological profiles, both consciously as well as subconsciously. Such a profile can consist of key distinguishing features, such as age, height, distinguishing behavioural features and possibly also, ethnic background. In the case of ethnic profiling, an individual is stopped by the police partially or fully due to the colour of their skin or ethnic background.

In doing so, the police officer ordinarily is in the supposition that he or she is effectively contributing to crime reduction, which is a key distinguishing feature between individually based and institutionalized racism. Despite that the individual means to harm, the behaviour can still be harmful to the other, thereby still making it wrong. Nevertheless, it is of importance not to attack or accuse the individual officer, but from a mutual basis of understanding and willingness to acknowledge the problem, explore how the system can be adapted to minimize the harm done.

The systemic nature of racism also is why even an officer from a minority background can still effectively contribute to discrimination through ethnic profiling. Resulting from a drive and motivation to do the job right, a strong adherence to the rules, norms and culture can arise. If such behavioural norms taught from top-down are flawed in their premises, an officer from any individual background can unknowingly do harm. While no justification, it can be an important explanation to consider and provide the potential for change.

However, harm perceived by those at the receiving end does not yet prove such systemic rules and norms exist. In order to gain insight in this regard, a study was conducted in 2015, which surveyed actual police departments in the local region of the Netherlands near where the master studying Individual Differences – which is the background to current blog – is based. What made this study especially valuable was the high participation amongst the officers, experts and chiefs’ of the police department. Seen the controversial nature, officers themselves usually are reluctant to participate, while only such participation allows for valid insights into the issue. Only through such insights can you get to know whether the people that feel discriminated against actually were treated differently because of their ethnic background, or due to actual display of suspicious behaviour which they themselves would not admit when speaking of discrimination.

Such patrolling the streets on the lookout for suspicious behaviour and criminals is an important part of the job of a police officer, with intuition usually guiding the officers in their work. Choosing who to stop and frisk, pull over or speak to often is a split-second decision.  When afterwards asked for the reasons they perceived to have guided their decision, 93% lists ‘usual suspects’ as being an important reason, with 37% listing ethnic background as being part of their top motivations. Interestingly, a difference arises when asked about the behaviour of their colleagues, ethnic background then being listed as one of the most important reasons by 57% of the respondents. Skin colour rises to be perceived as one of the main reasons from 13% when considering the self, to 34% when asked to describe their colleagues.

In both cases, ethnicity is thus admitted to being an important reason to stop someone, yet especially so when describing their own colleagues. From this, it shows that it is not only victims that wrongfully perceive to be discriminated against. Also amongst colleagues, it is perceived that ethnicity alone – and people from certain ethnic backgrounds being the ‘usual suspects’ especially – served as a main reason to stop someone and consider a suspect. Yet a barrier remains towards admitting to also be displaying such behaviour oneself.

Importantly, as mentioned, by most individuals it is not out of motivation to harm, but based on a belief of it being part of proper police work, or fear of otherwise not being perceived to be doing proper police work. Proponents believe that ethnic profiling is based on proper experience or would actually just be a form of accurate risk analysis. For that to be true there should be evidence that can prove its effectivity, no matter if controversial as measure.

To test that, studies have for example looked at prevention of pickpocketing and theft. For example, the general belief regarding Romani people more often stealing at flea markets was tested. Different task forces were compared, either told to make use of ethnic profiling or told to pay attention exclusively to behavioural signs indicating suspicious behaviour. The latter was shown to be significantly more effective leading to 8% more arrests. Similarly, experimental research conducted at airports has shown that elimination of ethnicity as a suspicion criterion allowed for more space to screen based on small deviations in behaviour, with a higher success ratio as result. Worse, contrary to popular belief, various studies have indicated that significantly less often any contraband- or otherwise items that could be confiscated – were found during body search of ethnic minorities. Knowing their suspicious status, individuals of such backgrounds seem more self-aware and go through greater efforts to ensure they do not carry anything on them that can be perceived as being wrong.

Nevertheless, ethnic profiling remains actively used, statistical over-representation often mentioned as a reason justifying the practice, such as by many officers in the Lamers study (2015). However, even if certain ethnic groups appear more frequently in crime statistics, it is important to consider how such crime statistics come about. In order for a certain individual to become part of the statistics, there has to be a contact with the police, seen as only reported – not actual – crimes add towards the statistics. Considering this, the metaphor applies that if you are sent out to catch fish, you do not return home with deer. To exemplify the real-life counterpart, one of the police chiefs interviewed for the study mentioned the fear that if a local group from the Dutch Caribbean would not be discussed on the briefing for more than a year, they would criminally grow-out and therefore have to be continuously monitored. The statistical consequence is that if certain ethnic groups are monitored more frequently, they will be caught committing crime more often in comparison to those that are less routinely checked. Using those same statistics that the behaviour helped create as a justification for continued monitoring then amounts to flawed circular reasoning.

Even if we were to assume that, the crime statistics are a true reflection of reality and people from certain ethnic backgrounds are more likely to commit a particular crime, ethnic profiling still would be a primarily stigmatizing, counter-productive method. To exemplify, consider a road driven upon by 50% light and 50% dark-skinned drivers. On this hypothetical road, 1 in every 10 light-skinned drivers is in breach with the law in comparison to twice as many dark-skinned drivers. In accordance with ethnic profiling, the police could respond by focusing their efforts and routinely checking 4 times as many dark-skinned drivers. Consequentially, on a given day, 80 dark-skinned drivers are pulled over in comparison to 20 white. Of those 80, 16 would be correctly pulled over in comparison to 2 out of 20. Statistically, the response would seem justified.
However, at the same time, this would mean 64 dark-skinned in comparison to 18 light-skinned drivers have been pulled over for no reason. Taken together with the fact that ethnic minorities are a minority group within overall society, it would mean that a small group of people would be pulled over for no reason disproportionally often, which could have stigmatizing effects.

Apart from the social stigmatization, it would also undermine one of the core principles of our legal system: the presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence states that one should be considered innocent until proven guilty, with the legal burden of proof on the prosecution. Such presumption of innocence is supposed to apply equally to all. In the study in which the police officers listed ‘usual suspects’ as well as ethnic background as top reasons to stop someone, over 80% of the respondents agreed at least partially with the statement that stopping someone is part of regular police duty, requiring no justification. Of those, 17% agreed fully that no justification was needed regardless. Not only does ethnic profiling cause certain individuals to be deemed as more innocent than others, but seemingly also without a felt need for proof. Legally violating the presumption of innocence puts ethnic profiling at tension with the law.

Still, up until present day ethnicity seems to be enough to be stopped and criminally prosecuted more frequently. Whether or not individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds in actuality commit more crimes can be contested; the COVID-19 pandemic hit all of us equally hard. Nevertheless, a recent analysis in England has shown that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus rules than white people. Nothing inherent to these ethnicities makes them to such extents more likely to violate corona-law, it being more likely to be the norm amongst police to monitor said groups more closely. Based on your ethnic background, you are thus already considered more likely to be in violation of the corona rules; yet another institutionalized barrier more so faced by individuals of certain ethnic backgrounds, in comparison to others.

For the Netherlands, unfortunately, no such statistics are available, due to ethnicity typically not being assessed. Oftentimes citing traditional Dutch tolerance, racism is claimed not to be an issue, despite the lack of data to prove this claim. While there is no good reason to use ethnicity towards profiling by the police, it nevertheless remains important to assess it as an individual difference for research purposes. Only through research, can insight be provided how individuals from different ethnic background make differing day-to-day experiences within everyday society. With ethnicity being readily observable and seemingly guiding behaviour in others, such insight is of importance. Ignoring it or pretending not to see it isn’t going to make the problems go away. Only through open assessment, with valuing of differing experiences, can the situation change. Ethnicity alone should not be used to establish how suspicious or guilty someone is. Yet for insight into how an individual’s perspective and experiences with day-to-day life, work, and health differ, assessment of ethnicity remains important to take into account.

Lamers, M. (2016). Ethnic profiling. Eindhoven: Nationale Politie Eenheid Oost-Brabant
Busby, M and Gidda, M (2020, May 22) BAME people fined more than white population under coronavirus laws.
US Customs Service, “Personal Searches of Air Passengers Results: Positive and Negative, Fiscal Year 1998,” (Washington DC: U.S. Customs Service, 1998).
Harris, David, “Profiles in Injustice; Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work,” (New York, The New Press, 2002); Open Society Justice Initiative, “Addressing Ethnic Profiling by Police: A Report on the Strategies for Effective Police Stop and Search Project,” (New York: Open Society Institute 2009).
Bovenkerk, F. (2014). ‘Twee Marokkanen op een scooter? Die houd ik aan’. Ethnic profiling in Nederland. In: M. Davidovic, & A.B. Terlouw (red.). Diversiteit & Discriminatie. Onderzoek naar processen van in- en uitsluiting.

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