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Measures against ethnic profiling must be developed continuously

Discrimination based on origin and ethnic profiling became topics of discussion in several countries last year when the Black Lives Matter movement, which opposes racist police violence and racist discrimination, strengthened in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The discussion on discrimination risks in the utilisation of artificial intelligence in proactive police activity and facial recognition methods expanded also. There has been discussion about ethnic profiling in police activities in Finland too, though not as much as there should have been, considering how serious the subject matter is and how far-reaching the effects are.  

In December, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a comprehensive recommendation on preventing and combating racial profiling by law enforcement officials. It is aimed at all the States parties that have adopted the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).  The Committee’s new general comment applies to both traditional police activities and the utilisation of artificial intelligence. 

The Committee notes that ethnic profiling by the police has increased globally in recent years. Reasons include especially concerns related to terrorism and migration, which have generally heightened hostility and discriminatory attitudes towards minorities. Use of new technologies in the security sector may also ramp up racism and discrimination. The Committee states that use of artificial intelligence in law enforcement is a significant risk of discrimination.  

The Committee recommends evaluating contents of the policies, practices and training of the police. Such assessment should include various actors from a broad spectrum of society. An impact assessment should be conducted on the utilisation of artificial intelligence before deployment, in the planning and procurement phases, and during use. States must ensure that this is done efficiently. States must also make sure that business operate without discrimination.

The Ministry of the Interior and the police must assess the measures needed and increase their transparency

During the past few years, the police have paid more attention than before to the prohibition of discrimination and ethnic profiling. Public discussion has also brought up profiling risks concerning police activities that should be prevented. Positive developments can thus be seen. 

However, the bar must be raised and kept elevated. The police and other law enforcement authorities must continuously develop their measures against discrimination and ethnic profiling: What kinds of practices are being followed? What kind of operating culture is being cherished? How are people being trained? How are police officers instructed on the prohibition of discrimination? How are discriminatory and racist procedures or situations intervened in? These must be reviewed on a regular basis, measures must be invested in and communicated. The appropriateness of measures by public authorities is also evaluated when taking a stand on violations of the prohibition of discrimination. Practices should be assessed regularly also from this perspective.

This spring, Helsinki Administrative Court should issue a decision on police measures that the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal regarded as discriminatory ethnic profiling in its decision (in Finnish). In a statement submitted to the Court, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman also evaluated that the police acted in a discriminatory manner in the situation in question. Regardless of the outcome of the court decision, the police must consider the lessons of the case. Authorities have a statutory obligation to promote equality and prevent risks of discrimination in their activities. 

Transparency on measures against ethnic profiling and discrimination and their effects is not realised adequately. Law enforcement authorities should communicate and discuss the subject matter more. Transparency strengthens trust in the authorities and improves the quality of supervision of the authorities. 

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman has encouraged the National Police Board and the Ministry of the Interior to issue a general comment on the need for enforcement and to engage different stakeholders and researchers in this work. 

What does ethnic profiling mean?

Usually, ethnic profiling refers to action by law enforcement authorities where measures are targeted at individuals based on characteristics related to their ethnic origin, such as skin colour, language, or clothing that suggests a certain religion or culture. Conclusions of a person’s conduct or unseen characteristics are made on the basis of the person's outward characteristics. 

Ethnic profiling can mean that an individual’s rights, such as protection of private life or freedom of movement, is restricted solely on the basis of the person's ethnic origin. This constitutes discrimination.  Ethnic profiling in verification of identity or other allocation of police actions, for example, constitutes discrimination that is prohibited in the Non-discrimination Act. These are linked to discriminatory stereotypes that can be conscious or subconscious. Ethnic profiling can be manifested in the actions of an individual police officer and also in practices generally followed by the police.

Ethnic profiling is not a concept defined or used in legislation. When preventing discrimination and assessing discrimination in individual situations, one must therefore look at the definition of discrimination in the Non-discrimination Act. 

Ethnic profiling is also talked about in references to discrimination based on ethnic origin in guarding duties. The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman regularly processes contacts of experiences on ethnic profiling in guarding tasks, and aims to promote equality and intervene in risks of ethnic profiling in both guarding duties and actions by law enforcement authorities.  

In recent years, experiences related to ethnic profiling have been discussed in reports, especially in the Stopped study (2018) conducted by the University of Helsinki. These reports indicate that ethnic profiling in Finland is experienced by both individuals profiled as foreigners based on their appearance and Roma people. The report on discrimination experienced by individuals with an African background (pdf), published by the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman last year, reveals that a considerable share of the respondents has experienced ethnic profiling by law enforcement authorities or security guards. The reports chart mainly experiences of discrimination. However, it is clear that the results indicate a need to pay more attention to the prevention of ethnic profiling. 

Studies show that ethnic profiling has far-reaching and serious consequences in society, such as decreasing trust in the police and the authorities, a diminishing of the sense of membership in society, and an increase of hate speech and discriminatory attitudes. 

Ethnic profiling is structural discrimination and racism. The authorities must take it seriously, keep the subject matter in public discussion, and continuously develop measures for combating the issue.