What’s Wrong with Ethnic Profiling?

BRUSSELS – Several years ago, as terrorism, immigration, and unrest in suburban Paris were at the top of the news in France, a French police officer confided to a researcher: “If you consider different levels of trafficking, it is obviously done by blacks and Arabs. If you are on the road and see a black man or a man with Arabic features, you say to yourself, ‘He doesn’t look French,’ and then you might stop him to see if he has papers.”

This police officer was describing a textbook example of “ethnic profiling”: law enforcement officials use of stereotypes, rather than specific information about behavior, in deciding to stop, search, or detain people. Ethnic profiling is illegal in Europe. It is ineffective in apprehending criminals. It is counter-productive in the campaign against terrorism. But police officers across Europe continue to use it.

The inefficiency of ethnic profiling was highlighted in early May, when the British government released figures showing that, of the more than 117,000 police stops made between 2007 and 2008, only 72 led to an arrest for terrorism-related offences. Other major European countries do not collect data on police stops broken down according to the targets’ ethnic or religious background. But private research and anecdotal reports provide a frighteningly similar picture.

A massive data-mining exercise in Germany from 2001 to 2003 trawled through personal information on 8.3 million people and failed to find a single terrorist. Stops and searches conducted under counter-terrorism powers in Europe have produced few terrorism charges and no convictions. Separate studies in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States have concluded that ethnic profiling wastes time and resources.