Racism, Human Rights and Policing Wrongs

Dr Iyiola Solanke

April 22nd 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His life and brutal death remains an important watershed for the pursuit of racial equality in Britain, especially via the use of anti-racial discrimination law. The murder by a gang of racist thugs of a young, well educated black man who planned to become an architect touched the nation and triggered a new era in legislative action. The determined campaign of a devastated family led to the MacPherson Report which gave formal recognition to the idea of institutional racism. The acknowledgment of this idea changed the way in which law tackled racial discrimination – it lead to the introduction of a ‘public sector equality duty’ (PSED) which placed an obligation upon public authorities to promote racial equality and foster good race relations.  The last Labour government saw fit to extend this duty from race to all protected characteristics listed in Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010; last year, however, Conservative Home Minister Theresa May launched a consultation to consider its removal. Perhaps she thinks it is unnecessary?

If so, she need only look at the profile of stop and search data, which as Home Minister she is bound to have at her fingertips. The data reveals that black people are now seven times more likely to be searched by the police than white people; 52% of all stops in London involve black and brown people. This is worse than before. Twenty years after his death, black people in Britain, especially black boys like Stephen, remain ‘police property’[1] – like a book or a bag, they can be picked up, searched, held and discarded at whim of any police officer.[2]  Despite being EU citizens, black and brown people have no rights or interests that the police in Britain, especially the London Metropolitan Force, need to recognize. People of colour in Britain continue to be seen as ‘dangerous classes’ who are ‘over-policed and under-protected.’

Is the situation any better in Europe? Sadly not: here too, black people are seen as ‘police property.’ A survey in 2010 by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) outlines that as in Britain, black citizens and residents elsewhere in the EU are also over-policed and under-protected.  A more recent report by the Council of Europe condemned the rise in racism among the police force in Greece.[3] Participants at the Matrix seminars in 2012 on black experiences of policing in the EU heard stories that mirrored the situation in Britain – speakers told of police harassment and racial profiling in Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Switzerland and even Scandinavia. Perhaps worst of all was the story of Oury Jalloh, who burnt to death in a police cell while chained to a mattress. The campaign led by Mouctar Bah managed to overturn the initial determination that Oury had committed suicide but to date there has been no clear explanation as to how a healthy young man could enter a police cell at night and by morning be nothing more than a charred corpse. Perhaps the authorities think that as Oury was ‘police property’ there is nothing to explain.

What does EU law say about this and what tools exist to address it? The problem of violent and racist policing cannot be pigeon-holed as hate crime; it is a bigger issue – one of lack of respect and regard for the human rights of black and minority ethnic peoples of Europe. EU law has banned racial discrimination, but the legal instrument, the Race Directive introduced in 2000, does not cover policing and law enforcement authorities. The time may be coming for this oversight to be addressed – given the emerging quantitative data and qualitative material, any other decision lacks credibility. How many more Oury Jalloh’s are needed before this protection is provided?

The omission will only become more glaring as the EU develops its very own ‘FBI’ – Europol. The contents of the Commission’s proposed ‘Europol Package’ take into account none of the documented troubles of black Europeans with police in the member states. For example, the Fundamental Rights Agency is distanced in favour of Frontex and Eurojust and the suggestion that Europol simply harvest all data collected by the national enforcement agencies overlooks the fact of racial profiling. If adopted as presented, the Package will simply compound the difficulties faced by black Europeans and confirm their status as ‘police property’  in all 28 member states excluded from the rights enjoyed by white Europeans, who will in effect be the only protected peoples of Europe.

However, the situation can be addressed – not only should policing be included within the scope of the Race Directive to emphasize anti-racial discrimination in law enforcement, but human rights in general must be brought to the fore of policing in the EU. Policing in an EU that aspires to join the ECHR must ensure that human rights are observed without compromise in the European area of freedom, security and justice. Indeed, the Council of Europe Declaration on Police Status lists human rights as one of the four key responsibilities of the service offered by police forces. The role of human rights needs to be stressed not only to the police officer ‘making quick decisions at 2am in the morning’, but to all officers at all times. A professional law enforcement agent is one who respects human rights:  where rights are respected, ‘police officers have developed professionalism in their approaches to solving and preventing crime and maintaining public order.’[4]

There is no need to reinvent the wheel to mainstream respect for human rights in a European approach to policing – in 2004, the UNOCHR produced a booklet setting out clearly the human rights standards of conduct expected of an ethical and lawful policing authority. Starting from the principle that human rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person, law enforcement officials are mandated to, inter alia, serve the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts, respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons – ‘all police action shall respect the principles of legality, necessity, non-discrimination, proportionality and humanity.’[5] These principles must be pursued with vigour by Europol, if as planned it inherits the training responsibilities currently held by CEPOL. In particular, non- racial discrimination in policing should be one of the training priorities for the new Europol Academy.[6] This at least must be done if black Europeans are also to live as protected peoples of Europe rather than exist as police property.

[1] Rob Reiner in Ben Bowling, Coretta Phillips and James Sheptycki ‘Race’, Political Economy and the Coercive State’


[2] See for example The Queen on the Application of Ann Juliette Roberts and The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police [2012] EWHC 1977 (Admin).

[4] DIHR/ Zvonimir Jankuloski, Gordan Kalajdziev, Trpe Stojanovski, Voislav Zafirovski (2002) Police And Human Rights Manual For Police Training, p9.

[5] Professional Training Series No. 5/Add.3 Human Rights Standards and Practice for the Police – Expanded Pocket Book on Human Rights for the Police. Geneva 2004.

[6] Chapter 3, Europol Package

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