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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Benjamin Bowling, Coretta Phillips, Alexandra Campbell and Maria Docking

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Policing and Human Rights: Eliminating Discrimination, Xenophobia, Intolerance and the Abuse of Power from Policework
The police force in many parts of the world has been accused of racial discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance and abuse of power. Such allegations have led to public inquiries into a number of police agencies, including the Metropolitan Police in London, the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, the New South Wales police in Australia, the Los Angeles Police Department in the United States, and the South Africa Police Service. These are among the best-documented cases, and problems of racism, discrimination and abuse of power have been identified in many agencies elsewhere.

There is evidence that many police officers hold racist and xenophobic views toward specific ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic minority’ groups, and that derogatory language is often used when dealing with people from economically and politically marginalized communities. In the LAPD, the Christopher Commission uncovered ‘an appreciable number of disturbing and recurrent racial remarks…some [describing] minorities through animal analogies…often made in the context of discussing pursuits or beating suspects’. A documentary film shown on Australian television indicated that police officers spoke ‘automatically’ about the Aboriginal community as ‘coons’ and ‘gooks’. Similar use of racist language has been documented in the United Kingdom and, until recently at least, some supervisors were unwilling to challenge racist banter and inappropriate language. It has even been argued that conservatism and racial prejudice are integral to police culture, and that suspiciousness, hostility and prejudice toward minorities is common in the United Kingdom and the United States. In addition to having prejudiced attitudes of mind, there is also evidence that police officers often make decisions based on ethnic or racial stereotypes and discriminate against particular groups. Although the relationship between prejudice and discrimination is complex, numerous studies have identified the ways in which racist ideas translate into discriminatory practices.

In many jurisdictions, ethnic, cultural and other minorities are disproportionately subject to intrusive and coercive police powers such as ‘stop and search’, ‘on-street interrogation’ and arrest. In the United Kingdom, official statistics show that ‘black’ people are about five times as likely as their ‘white’ counterparts to be stopped and searched by the police, and are also more likely to be subject to repeated stops and more intrusive searches. People of ‘Asian’ origin are stopped and searched by the police to a lesser extent than ‘blacks’, but rates are higher than for ‘whites’. Similar findings emerge from other jurisdictions, and the evidence suggests that the disproportionate use of police powers is, at least in part, the product of discrimination. Findings from a number of contexts suggest that the abuse of power is most discriminatory where autonomy and discretion are greatest.

People from minority groups are, in many places, disproportionately subject to the excessive use of force, including deadly force. The National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia reported numerous incidents of ‘intrusive and intimidatory’ policing, some of an extreme nature. This included unwarranted entry into households, physical abuse, and discriminatory policing in public places and private functions. The Inquiry was also presented with ‘overwhelming evidence’ of maltreatment of Aboriginal women and girls, such as racist and sexist verbal and physical abuse, and revealed allegations of sexual abuse and rape while in police custody. In the United States, the weight of evidence suggests that African-Americans are far more likely to be victims of police shootings and abuse of force than would be expected on the basis of their representation in the population, even once arrest rates are taken into account. In recent years in the United Kingdom, deaths in custody have more frequently involved people from ethnic minority communities, both in comparison with their numbers in the general population and with the total number of arrests. Surveys in many places show a widespread public perception that the police abuse their powers more often in dealing with minority suspects. Instances of abuse and death at the hands of police have been the trigger for widespread public disorder in many places around the globe.

Research has also revealed barriers to the recruitment, retention and promotion of police officers from minority communities. Among the problems in recruiting a police service that reflects the diversity of the community that it serves are discrimination and abuse of ethnic minority recruits. Studies have indicated that there is a link between the internal culture of policing and the delivery of services to the public. This affects not only the use of coercive police powers, but also the treatment of ethnic minority victims, witnesses and bystanders. It has also been noted that systems of police governance and complaint handling are insufficiently robust to prevent the abuse of power.

This paper sets out a human rights framework based on existing national and international legal instruments relating to anti-discrimination and the regulation of policing. This provides a basis for a critical evaluation of the research evidence from the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Australia, South Africa and the United States on the nature and extent of racism, xenophobia and intolerance, and on the development of measures to reduce racial discrimination and injustice in policing. Such measures include attempts to ensure that the police service reflects the diversity of the communities served; measures to promote equality of opportunity and equality of service; structures and processes to ensure legal, political and community accountability; the introduction of civilian oversight and robust mechanisms for handling complaints; the development of ethnic minority staff networks; and innovation in education and training.

On the basis of this survey, the paper makes recommendations for the development of competent, accountable, equitable, responsive policing systems for the maintenance of community safety and the protection of fundamental human rights.