The use of “ethnic profiling” by European police forces dates back to well before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Since then, there is no doubt that the practice has become more widespread in Europe. But in terms of preventing or solving crimes, how useful is it?

A study published today by the Open Society Justice Initiative, which campaigns for law reform and the protection of human rights, argues that ethnic profiling is “may be pervasive, but it is inefficient, ineffective and discriminatory… Ethnic profiling strikes at the heart of the social compact linking law enforcement institutions with the communities they serve. It wastes police resources, discriminates against whole groups of people, and leaves everyone less safe.”

Ethnic profiling is the practice by which police forces launch investigations, make raids and detain people on the basis of generalisations about their ethnic origin or nationality, rather than objective evidence or the behaviour of specific individuals. It covers everything from unannounced identity checks of people at German mosques to the way that non-Slavs are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police on the Moscow metro than Russians and other Slavs. Some activists also define ethnic profiling to include initiatives such as the Italian government’s proposal to fingerprint its Roma immigrant communities, or the alleged application of racial criteria by French job recruitment companies.

But the Open Society report concentrates on police practices - and unearths some valuable facts and figures. For example, in the UK, which is the only European Union country that systematically gathers ethnic data on police activities, the number of British Asians stopped under counter-terrorism laws increased threefold after 9/11 and fivefold after the July 2005 attacks on London’s transport network.

At the same time, studies conducted in the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and the US over the past decade have all concluded that ethnic profiling is ineffective. “When police treat an entire group of people as presumptively suspicious, they are more likely to miss dangerous persons who do not fit the profile,” the Open Society report contends.

Achieving better results in the struggle against terrorism and crime requires more emphasis on hard data and less on generalisations, whims and prejudices. It also requires close co-operation between the police and minority communities. In the Spanish municipality of Fuenlabrada, near Madrid, the use of these methods instead of ethnic profiling over a four-month trial period in 2007-2008 produced a fall in the number of people stopped from 958 to 396 per month, but an increase in the number of successful stops – those leading to the discovery of a crime or some other offence – to 28 from 6 per cent.

As British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last week, when he presented the parliamentary security and intelligence report into the July 2005 bombings, “there can be no absolute guarantee in terms of disrupting terrorist attacks”.

If our intelligence services and police forces were to monitor every single person deemed to be a possible threat, we would end up with societies even less free than they are now, what with the vast increase in information about citizens stored in databases and the rising use of street cameras and other public surveillance techniques.

All that said, there are ways to defend a society against terrorism – and ethnic profiling is one of the most wrong-headed of them.

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