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We Attended a Seminar on Racial Profiling to Learn When the Police Can Search You

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According to Professor Ben Bowling, stop and search may be acceptable if the police have well-founded suspicions. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

The topic of ethnic or racial profiling has bounced in and out of the news for some time in Finland. In 2016 after a police crackdown on illegal immigrants, the non-discrimination ombudsman received complaints about checks targeting foreign nationals, many of whom said that they were wrongly profiled based on their appearance.

Then in July of last year, the National Police Board cleared the police of allegations of racial profiling. Discriminatory ethnic profiling is prohibited and applies to situations in which as a result of police action, an individual is subjected to police scrutiny entirely on the basis of their appearance.

Now the “Stopped” research project conducted by Helsinki University’s Swedish School of Social Sciences has recently published a study that shows racial profiling does still exist. To discuss the findings and to compare them with the international research and solutions available, a conference was held at the Hanaholm Swedish – Finnish Centre in Espoo.

Ben Bowling, professor of criminology & criminal justice at Kings College London has been studying aspects of the British police stop and search powers since 1985.  Professor Bowling advocated that even though stop and search is coercive and intrusive it may be acceptable if the police have well-founded suspicions.

In Finland, it is legal for the police to check whether people from abroad are legitimately in the country. However, the intensification of surveillance measures against foreigners also stirred up feelings of resentment among the public and as Professor Bowling also commented, it ends up being ineffective at preventing crime and wastes police time.

In Finland, it is legal for the police to check whether people from abroad are legitimately in the country.

The professor outlined the rise and fall of stop and search in the UK. The increased use of the measure came about due to the political decision to have zero tolerance of crime, and at the same time, the threat of terrorism was increasing. However, the indiscriminate methods used by the police led to much public resentment resulting in riots and civil unrest.

The methods of stop and search also led to significantly more blacks and Asians being stopped when compared to the ethnic profile of the population. Institutional racial profiling was in existence.

Police statistics showed mostly innocent folks were being subjected to stop and search and at the most, four percent of those stopped were doing something illegal. No terrorists were ever caught using stop and search.  The police were reluctant to reduce their random stops, worried that crime would increase.  Since a more relaxed political direction has discouraged stop and search, the use has gradually declined and surprisingly the crime rate declined at the same time.

Professor Bowling encouraged law enforcement authorities to be more accountable and transparent.  To allow filming of any citizen stopped to increase public trust. Already in the UK, there is a great deal of data available for public scrutiny and it is monitored to build accountability.

The police do have the right to stop citizens but if they do get it wrong there would be no harm in apologizing because the person stopped may feel aggrieved. Any rise in crime sees politicians starting to contemplate the quick fix of stop and search, which visibly and easily demonstrates government action.

The police do have the right to stop citizens but if they do get it wrong there would be no harm in apologizing because the person stopped may feel aggrieved.

However, more investment in youth services and education would probably prove more cost effective.

“Stop and think; stop and search is a power that requires careful use and should only be used sparingly when there is a genuinely reasonable suspicion of a crime taking place,” said Professor Bowling.  “Suspicion-less searches based on racial profiling are unacceptable in a fair society and are also worse than useless. Change is possible using the law, political activism and cultural change.”

Let us hope that the serving police officers in the audience were taking note and the very democratic country of Finland gets more accountable and transparent law enforcement to match.

In case you are stopped by the Finnish police, remember that according to Finnish law, people are not obliged to carry proof of identity at all times. If a person is out and about without any ID, police can check a centralized database, but if someone has not dealt with Finnish authorities in the past, their information may not be available. In these cases, police may enter a person’s home or hotel room to access their papers.

Remember that the police are just doing their job trying to maintain a civil society.  I have been stopped during morning rush hour to oblige them with an alcohol breath test. Most importantly, every car was being stopped and it only took a minute. I was happy to think that unsafe drunk drivers would not be encountered for the rest of my journey.

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