Pioneering ruling in France against police identifications based on ethnic profiles

The incident dates back to the autumn of 2011 in the city of Lyon. Two university students, Nadir and Armel, were sitting on the terrace of a restaurant when a police car stopped and, of all the people present, the officers proceeded to identify these two men. The reason: they were the only non-whites.

Nadir and Armel made a joint complaint with 13 other young people of African and North African origin due to police identifications being based on appearance. On 9 November 2016, the tribunal ruled that they were right. For the first time in France, a judge has determined that “an identity control based on physical characteristics associated with real or presumed origins, without any previous objective justification, is discriminatory”. The other big news is that the tribunal has also specified the way such discrimination can be proved, meaning that the police force will now be on trial. Anyone reporting such an incident will have to provide elements which facilitate the presumption of the existence of discrimination, like, for example, the evidence provided by a witness. The police will have to demonstrate the presence or absence of discrimination, or possibly a difference of treatment justified by objective elements.

In Spain, the only judicial precedent which exists is a 1992 case involving Rosalind Williams, of Spanish nationality and born in the US, who reported a case of police identification exclusively motivated by the colour of her skin. While in 2001 the Constitutional Tribunal responded that physical or racial appearance can justify a police identification, in 2009 the committee of human rights of the UN took sides with the complainant, and ruled that the police cannot make judgements based on skin colour.

Identifications based on ethnic profiles happen when the police pay a disproportionate amount of attention to certain group of people because of their racial, ethnic, religious or national origin, whether real or apparent, rather than due to factors which raise objective or reasonable suspicion. A report by the European Agency of Fundamental rights points out that ethnically related identifications are not only discriminatory, they also serve to deteriorate police-public relations and consequently prejudice the work of the police, which requires the trust and cooperation of the general public.

62-fair-and-effective-police-stops-es-featured-20160208As shown by several studies conducted by the Open Society Foundation, the use of an ethnic profile in France for identification purposes mainly affects young men of African or Arab origin. However, the French Police are not alone in this practice: Identifications based on ethnic profiles are habitual all over Western Europe and much of the world. Neither Catalonia nor Spain are an exception. In 2008 a pilot test carried out in Gerona as part of the European project STEPSS showed that police officers disproportionately identified certain groups in accordance with age (young people), gender (men), ethnic group and nationality, especially those who look North African and Moroccan. In 2013 another study by the University of Valencia concerning police identifications stressed the use of ethnic profiles by law-enforcement organisations. In Spain, some police officers have introduced reforms to reduce this policy of identification. The results are published in the report efficient and impartial police identifications.

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