Update: 11.01.2017

Racial profiling: police see no need for action

On 1 December 2016, the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights (SCHR) held a symposium on the discriminatory identity checks. The keynote speakers were Markus Mohler (an expert in police law), Claudia Kaufmann (Ombudswoman of the city of Zurich), Marc Bossuyt (UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination), Rebekah Delsol (Open Justice Foundation) and Stefan Blättler (Head of the Conference of Cantonal Police Commanders of Switzerland (CCPCS) and Chief of Police of the Canton of Bern).

The closing panel discussion demonstrated how widely the positions of the involved parties vary. Discrimination expert Tarek Naguib and Stefan Blättler were diametrically opposed and had a heated debate.

Stefan Blättler: “Discriminatory identity checks are not an institutional problem”

As he stated clearly in his talk and in the panel discussion, Stefan Blättler is not prepared to adopt a proactive approach against racial profiling. He listened to the previous speaker Delsol with great interest, but did not consider the arguments to be applicable to Switzerland.

Education, people-to-people contact and cultural diversity

Blättler claimed that in Switzerland discriminatory identity checks are isolated cases and not an institutional problem. Some police may act incorrectly because they lack experience or knowledge, which is why it is essential that police are trained using simple examples of how a police officer should act in certain situations. The principle of proportionality can be taught to new police officer by asking them what common sense would tell them to do.

Blättler warned against creating even more legislation and regulations because no one reads them. In his view, it is much more important to effectively implement existing legislation such as the non-discrimination principle. He believes contact with various counselling services and ethnic groups (e.g. organising a football game as part of the African Culture Cup), bridge-building (in preventative work), cultural diversity in the police force and personnel sanctions (in case of assaults) are appropriate measures.

Police receipts are not an issue

In Blättler’s view, police should not issue receipts during identity checks because it only creates more paperwork and doesn’t solve anything. He also claims police officers spend half their time in front of the computer and police force resources are already overstretched.

Tarek Naguib calls for institutional measures

Discrimination expert Tarek Naguib contradicted Chief of Police Blättler on many key points. In Naguib’s view, Blättler is trivialising the problem by psychologizing it and by transferring it to the level of individual police officers, when scientific studies and reports show that racially discriminatory identity checks are commonplace and based in the institutional practices of the police force.

According to Naguib, this institutionally supported racism will persist until it is combatted by heads of police and policies with targeted measures, rather than treating it as isolated cases from individual officers with racist attitudes. The benefit of police receipts has been adequately proven. For Naguib, Blätter’s defensive attitude and the trivialization of the problem by the Head of the Conference of Cantonal Police Commanders of Switzerland is simply incomprehensible.

Specific standards in cantonal legislation

Naguib also pointed out that in Switzerland there is a large discrepancy between the general, abstract ban on discrimination in the Federal Constitution and the legal reality. For several reasons, the administrative hurdles for a lawsuit are very high. Besides the financial risks of a legal process and the risk of a counter-accusation, the affected persons also expose themselves publicly and may meet considerable resistance. Furthermore, it is practically impossible to substantiate claims because the police is usually more trusted than the persons affected by racism. The close cooperation between public prosecutors and police in many cantons and cities also makes an independent investigation impossible.

According to Naguib only a few cases ever become public, as can be seen in workshops with Swiss youths of colour whose parents originate from South-East Europe. Most of them know the experience of being subjected to groundless police checks. The youths themselves describe these checks as normal and would not consider them unjust. They have accepted racism as a normal part of their lives.

In order for laws to help people, specific standards in cantonal laws and in official regulations are needed. Legal sociology research, in Naguib’s view, clearly shows that it is essential to specify the abstract constitutional ban on discrimination in police laws and personnel legislation, as well as instructions on how to implement protection against discrimination. Regulation is a process that leads to a true discussion within the organisation, but also in parliaments and administrations and the greater society. Naguib believes Blättler’s argument that the new legal bases need to simply be implemented is oversimplified.

The possibility of “too much paperwork” is not a valid excuse for human rights violations

Naguib did not understand how Blättler thought the new measures would lead to additional paperwork and would use up already lacking resources. The damage racial profiling does to society and affected persons far outstrips such a cost. For the sake of human rights, people must use and implement the existing and scientifically examined measures to fight this deplorable state of affairs.

ABlättler’s argument that skin colour could be one of several acceptable criteria for a police check is highly debatable from a legal perspective. A German administrative court, for example, decided in 2016 that an identity check based on skin colour constitutes unlawful discrimination even if the person’s skin colour was just one of the reasons they were stopped. It must only be individual behaviour and not exterior appearances that leads to a check.

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