Viewpoints Viewpoints

Stop and searches on ethnic or religious grounds are not effective

Strasbourg 20/07/2009
  • Diminuer la taille du texte
  • Augmenter la taille du texte
  • Imprimer la page
  • Imprimer en PDF
Members of minorities are more often than others stopped by the police, asked for identity papers, questioned and searched. They are victims of “ethnic profiling”, a form of discrimination which is widespread in today’s Europe. Such methods clash with agreed human rights standards. They tend also to be counter-productive as they discourage people from cooperating with Police efforts to detect real crimes.

A broad survey conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) indicates that minority groups feel targeted by the manner in which the police select persons for stop and search procedures. Not surprisingly, many among them see this tendency as a sign that they are suspected, badly regarded and not welcomed by society at large.

The recent FRA report on Muslims (based on interviews in 14 European countries) showed that one out of every four Muslim respondent had been stopped by the police during the past year and that 40 % of them believed that this was because of their immigrant or minority status. Many of them had been stopped more than once during the last 12 months (the average was three times).1

A previous FRA report on the situation of Roma showed that this group had also been targeted by stop and search interventions and that many of them felt that this was precisely because of their belonging to this minority.

Stop and searches are a serious problem in several European countries, and have become more frequent since the terror acts of 9/11. It is not just minority communities who are targeted. The European Court of Human Rights recently held a hearing in a case which concerned police power in the United Kingdom under anti-terrorism legislation to stop and search individuals without reasonable suspicion.2 Although in this case the applicants were not arguing that they were stopped on the grounds of their ethnicity, they complained that the use of power to stop and search each of them breached a number of their Convention rights.

Ethnic or religious profiling is all too prevalent in Europe. The non-governmental organisation, the Open Society Justice Initiative has recently analysed ethnic profiling in the European Union. Its latest report finds a pervasive use of ethnic and religious stereotypes by law enforcement agencies across Europe. The effect of such practices is that real efforts to combat crime and terrorism are actually being harmed.3

The report found that ethnic profiling actually back-fires. Such practices have resulted in the overlooking of criminals who do not fit the established profile. They have also undermined the rule of law and perceptions of police fairness; stigmatised entire communities; and alienated people who could work with police to reduce crime and prevent terrorism. Alternatives to ethnic profiling are recommended, such as profiling based on individual behaviour.

There should be an objective reason why a certain individual is stopped and searched, a reasonable and individualised suspicion of criminal activity. The colour of your skin, your dress or visible religious attributes are not objective reasons.

In 2007 the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published a highly relevant recommendation on “Combating racism and racial discrimination in policing”.4 It recommends that governments clearly define and prohibit racial profiling by law. Governments should also introduce a standard of reasonable suspicion to ensure that control, surveillance or investigation activities are only carried out when the suspicion is founded on objective criteria.

Furthermore, ECRI emphasises the importance of training the police on how to use the reasonable suspicion standard and suggests that police activities in this area are monitored, including through the collection of data broken down by grounds such as national or ethnic origin, language, religion and nationality.

These measures will be more effective if taken within a comprehensive approach based on clear legislation; rules on accountability; available complaints mechanisms; and active support from high level police leadership to implement rights-based procedures.

Positive action in this spirit is needed in several countries. Indeed, the purpose of another Open Society Justice Initiative project, carried out in 2005, was not only to expose shortcomings in practice but also to improve relations between the police and the minorities through more accountable and effective use of police powers. Positive steps were taken towards enhanced police training and improved supervision and monitoring of ID checks, stops and searches which can serve as models for others.5

Methods used during stops and identity checks were assessed during this project as well as whether they affected minority communities in a disproportionate manner. The collected data demonstrated two points. Firstly, that the police indeed were engaged in ethnic profiling – minorities were more likely to be stopped, and secondly that members of minorities were not found to have offended more than the majority population.

This was an important finding as those who have defended ethnic or religious profiling have often claimed that minority groups are more likely to be involved in crime than others and therefore this justified increased police intervention.

It is clear that disproportionate stops and searches have a detrimental and negative impact on the community in general. All groups in society should have reason to trust the police. All the more so for those groups who may be the targets of xenophobic action or even hate crimes.

An unfortunate lack of trust is fostered if minorities feel that the police are a tool of the State and not of the community.

Instead the police themselves should promote equality and prevent racial discrimination; they should be trained to work in a diverse society and they must recruit members from minority communities.

As always, every police officer is also a human rights defender.

Thomas Hammarberg


1.Htpp:// The countries in which interviews were made: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

2. Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom (application no. 4158/05). Hearing held on 12 May 2009.

3. Ethnic Profiling in the European Union: Pervasive, Ineffective and Discriminatory, OSI, May 2009.

4. ECRI General Policy Recommendation No. 11, adopted 29 June 2007

5.Addressing Ethnic Profiling by Police. A Report on the Strategies for Effective Police Stop and Search Project. AGIS 2006 and Open Society Institute.