Following last month’s blog on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and their resolution on Racism in European Policing, QCEA examines what is needed to reduce racism in policing.
In January QCEA attended the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as an organisation accredited to the International NGO forum of the Council of Europe. As described in our blog, the Council of Europe is a 47-member-state institution that aims to promote and facilitate human rights, democracy, and the Rule of Law. Its assembly of 318 national parliamentarians passes non-binding recommendations, to which the 47 governments collectively respond through the Committee of Ministers.
One of last month’s PACE Assembly resolutions called for Member States to implement measures to address racism in the police. These measures included action to ensure police services recruit officers from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and interact with the public in ways that will build trust. Reforming the culture and practice of police services can be slow and requires strong political commitment. Whilst policing in many Member States has improved since PACE first agreed guidance on tackling racism in policing in 1991, a failure to learn from examples of successful reform is slowing progress. In this blog, QCEA highlights evidence of successful policies from around Europe to support Member States to respond to the PACE resolution.
Everyday police behaviour sets the relationship with communities
Police must have a good relationship with the people in their community to be effective. A police service that is widely trusted is better able to mediate to resolve disputes within the community and obtain the cooperation of the public in both crime prevention and emergency situations. Despite this, as the budgets of European police services reduce, it is probable that the resources used to build trusting relationships with the community will decrease.
The attitude of Europe’s police officers is reflected in how they speak to the public. Whilst attitudes take time to change, measures can help to ensure police are respectful. In the UK, consultation with minority communities indicates that police are not polite when conducting sensitive activities, such as searching people. To tackle a similar problem, in 2012 French police were banned from addressing a person being searched with the informal ‘tu’. Whilst this may appear tokenistic, it reminds everyone of the right relationship between the police, as a public service, and the public.
Counter-intuitive engagement breaks down stereotypes
An important element that is not included in the PACE resolution is the need for direct engagement between police officers and groups most likely to suffer from discrimination. Who these groups are will vary across Europe but they might include members of the Roma community, young men from an ethnic minority group, or recent immigrants. Quaker projects in Seattle have proposed that police teach school students about the rights of citizens, as a way of highlighting the value of human rights to both police and communities, whilst also building trust.
Radical recruitment policies are needed in multi-ethnic Europe
The police exist for the protection of all, and Europe has changed in social composition in the past decades. A multi-ethnic police workforce is vital to ensure that the public recognise the police as a service that exists for everyone. The policing of one demographic group in society by another visibly or linguistically different group has been a factor in triggering violent demonstrations of discontent in Europe, such as the French riots in 2005. Racism is perceived when police do not visibly welcome recruits of different ethnicities and do not have the knowledge to be sensitive of the different cultures.
The PACE resolution recommended that diversity be ‘encouraged’, but this is somewhat woolly and does not reflect the scale of the problem. Examples from Macedonia, Northern Ireland, and many inner-city areas in Europe, point to the need for more concrete action to ensure the police workforce has a broadly similar ethnic background to the community they serve. PACE should recommend states take radical but targeted action relevant to the ethnic groups most under-represented. For example, one approach might be to reward language skills in the recruitment process; another would be to implement police cadet schemes in schools or colleges located in neighbourhoods with the highest populations of minority groups.
Professional peacemakers must have certain values
If police officers are to reduce tension and social conflict, they must reflect and value the diversity in society. A police officer’s ability to act impartially is called into question if she or he has links to groups who use hate speech or have racist aims. The PACE resolution should have gone further by calling for membership of far-right extreme nationalist groups to be incompatible with a job in the police. This is already the case in some Member States; however, in recent years membership of Golden Dawn within the Greek police has gone almost unchallenged and now fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the service there.
Public trust must also be earned by those who investigate police conduct
QCEA believes that the community should be involved in independent complaints mechanisms that have the trust of the public. Member states must consider whether just resolution and redressis available to victims of police racism. Effective complaints processes, or other accountability mechanisms, help prevent individual racist incidents creating a racist institution or system. Fair access to a complaints system is made more difficult in cases where a fee is charged for making a complaint. The 100 euro fee in Greece is said to discourage ‘frivolous complaints’ but effectively excludes those who are most likely to be mistreated. Victims of police racism may also fear putting themselves at further risk by complaining to the police. Despite this, in many parts of Germany, complaints can only be processed in person at a police station.
Complaints systems are often bureaucratic, lack humanity, and, as a result, treat both complainants and police officers without compassion. Complainants and police officers are rarely reunited to take part in restorative processes. Instead, the investigative complaints processes used take months or years to produce findings or charge suspects. Lack of resolution or positive solutions can mean that minority communities lose trust in the police, the criminal justice system, and the state. Riots that followed a police shooting in London in 2011 demonstrated that independent complaints mechanisms must communicate effectively with communities to ensure they build and maintain their trust. Delays create the space for speculation and discontent, worsening tensions between police and communities. During 2013 UK community activists channelled some of this discontent into campaigns for all officers to wear ‘body-worn cameras’ that record their interactions with the public, and this is now being piloted in some police services.
Learning from experience
European societies and our institutions all suffer from racism. Every act of racism in policing harms those directly involved, but also reduces the trust of minority communities in the police. Citizens from minority groups are less likely to seek help from European criminal justice systems. The absence of public trust limits the legitimacy of these systems. Whilst the PACE recommendation regarding racism in the police is welcome, it fails to highlight important tools described above that have underpinned improvements in some parts of Europe.
Few individual police officers intend their actions to be racist, but they work in institutions and systems that privilege majority groups. The police need to look more radically at whom they recruit, the daily experience of minority communities, and how easily and restoratively victims of racism can seek justice when racist incidents occur. QCEA encourages PACE to continue to take an interest in this issue and monitor progress on each aspect of its resolution until the speed of improvement is quickened.