By Tamara Preuss
Racial profiling occurs when police target individuals because of their race. It involves an underlying assumption that individuals of the targeted race are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity than those of other races. This constitutes discrimination and has many possible negative outcomes: it may lead to strained relations and mutual distrust between police and the ethnic communities subject to racial profiling; it constitutes inefficient policing, as police resources are unnecessarily expended; and it may result in psychological harm to those individuals subject to racial profiling (Kelly, 2013).
Racial profiling by police is a significant problem in many jurisdictions. The extent of the problem in the United States has been recently highlighted by a spate of police killings of African-American men. Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, was shot in Ferguson, Missouri. Tensions between the African-American community and police flared after a jury decided not to indict the responsible police officer. In North Charleston, Walter Scott was shot by a police officer after being stopped for having a broken car brake light – an event chillingly captured on video. In France, a recent court case considered whether Muslims are subject to a greater number of identification checks by police than other ethnicities.
Racial profiling in Australia was exposed by the 2013 Federal Court case of Halle-Michael v Konstantinidis, initiated by six young African–Australian men against members of Victoria Police, Chief Commissioner Ken Lay and the State of Victoria. The men alleged that between between 2005 and 2009 they suffered discrimination and harassment by police because of their ethnicity. They stated that as teenagers growing up in public housing projects in Flemington they were stopped, questioned and searched by police at rates disproportionate to the rest of the community. This was the first time police had faced formal allegations of racial discrimination under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).
The claims of the men proved to be well founded. Ian Gordon, a statistician, conducted a review of policing data from Flemington and North Melbourne between 2005 and 2008. His analysis revealed that young persons of African ethnicity were two and a half times more likely to be stopped and searched relative to their number in the population. Despite this, and contrary to perceptions underlying racial profiling, they were underrepresented in the number of crimes committed (Gordon, 2012).
The case settled before it went to hearing and the terms of settlement included important commitments on the part of Victoria Police. They agreed to undertake a public review of policing and training policies and initiate a three-year action plan. They also agreed to trial a program that involves police officers issuing receipts to any persons they stop, question or search, which will shortly commence in certain regions. The aim of this program is to enable individuals who believe they have been subject to racial profiling to be able to make a complaint about the relevant police officer. A similar program has been undertaken in the United Kingdom, with successful results (Green, 2013).
It is unlikely that racial profiling will be completely eliminated in the near future. However, we can hope that the attention brought to the issue by the case, and the response from Victoria Police, will lead to gradual improvement in the situation. With increased training and awareness, police will be more likely to consider whether the reasons for which they are stopping someone are legitimate.
Tamara Preuss is currently completing a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at La Trobe University.
Kelly, Anthony, ‘An end to racial profiling in sight’ (2013) 8 Insight 44
Tamara Preuss, ‘Racial Profiling by Police: From Ferguson to Flemington’, Law and Justice, 1 June 2015 (La Trobe Law School Blog, http://law.blogs.latrobe.edu.au/)