Consequences of Racist Police Stops

Introduction

A systematic study of the existence and consequences of racist police stops (racial profiling) has neither been facilitated nor promoted by state institutions in the past. This is unlikely to change in Germany in the near future. This is because the study recently commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior deals exclusively with the subjective perspective of police officers and, moreover, is conducted by the police academy itself [1]. Thus, the requirements for independent research cannot be guaranteed.  The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation has therefore conducted its own study on racial profiling in Switzerland.

“The primary aim of the reports collected in this volume is rather to intervene in disputes in the fields of politics, law, media, culture and education beyond documentation and to support criticism with sound analysis. In the sense of “counterstorytelling” (Delgado/Stefancic 2017: 42 ff.) or a “revolt of subjugated ways of knowing” (Foucault 1978: 59), we aim to challenge dominant narratives – such as the trivializations and appeasements outlined at the beginning – by giving voice to experiences that are otherwise drowned out or delegitimized in hegemonic political discourse.”  

The implementing Collaborative Research Group Racial profiling in Switzerland is co-founded by Mohamed Wa Baile, who also experienced racial profiling. As a result of his resistance and not showing his identification papers, he was fined, which he did not pay, but fought back in court. Court cases are intended to serve as a strategic tool to intervene at various levels of society and to serve as a model for further lawsuits. For the study, 30 interviews were conducted with people who self-identify as Black, Person of Color, Yenish, Sinto, Roma, Muslim, Asian, or migrant.  The interviewees are both people with no or precarious residence status (such as asylum seekers, temporarily admitted persons as well as Sans-Papiers, i.e. people without regular residence status) and people with a Swiss passport or a secure residence status. The study implementation followed the following principles:

  • participatory action research: not only understanding, but also social change
  • collaborative setting: people affected co-design the research
  • interventionist practice/engaged scholarship: overcoming the separation between academic knowledge production and political activism.

Below we would like to share with you excerpts from the study’s findings on the following research areas:

  • Experiences: Analyzing different experiences of racial profiling: what social distinctions are at work in the controls described? Who is particularly affected by this form of discrimination and which dominance relations become effective? What are the effects of different positioning in dimensions of inequality such as gender, age, residence status or language?
  • Effects: immediate and longer-term consequences of police checks on those being checked
  • Resistance: what strategies and tactics do participants use to defend themselves against racist police checks?

1. Experiences

Racialization, Othering, “Abnormalization,” Criminalization, Physical Violence Experiences.

Although skin color is the primary selection criterion in racist police checks, other differences and dimensions of other differences and dimensions of inequality become relevant in the control situations: Age, gender, language, religious identity, and class or socio-economic status. Therefore, the experiences of those being controlled also differ greatly. Different social inequalities may interact intersectionally (e.g., with sexist objectification). A common denominator: racialization, skin color as stigma. Through this racializing gaze, people are made into “others” in public on the basis of an externally visible characteristic. The police themselves do not see themselves as actors in a discriminatory practice, but as institutions of a society that (unconsciously) sees itself as homogeneously white and that places all visible “others” under general suspicion and treats them as persons with diminished legal status (cf. Zinflou 2007: 59).

Racist controls thereby also have an effect back into society. Whiteness is normalized and non-whiteness is abnormalized. It is important to emphasize that it is not the racialized characteristics per se that are decisive, but only the linked symbolic attributions that create problems. Arbitrary individuals are seen as representatives of a supposedly homogeneous group (in terms of race or ethnicity).

Racist attributions also include criminalizing stereotyping. Although migration is a normal state of affairs, it is still common practice in state institutions such as the police to regard people of color as a potential security and order problem.

Again and again, non-whites are confronted with the blanket suspicion of illegal residence status. The residence status of the person being checked subsequently has a considerable influence on the further actions of the police. Another accusation that many of the interviewees have already been confronted with is drug use or drug dealing. In the case of associated controls, there are often incriminating police checks that violate physical integrity (body searches, examination of the oral cavity, etc.). A third accusation, repeatedly reported in the interviews, is the suspicion of terror, which often affects especially Muslim and male-read people.

In general, the report of physical experiences of violence runs through many interviews. These usually happened without warning and ranged from shoving to punching, choking, and pepper spray use. Some interviewees reported experiencing fear of death in these situations. However, due to fear of lack of success and/or counter-reporting, it was rare for charges to be filed against the police.

2. Effects

Direct effects

Various direct effects of racist police stops were addressed by the interviewees: Frequently, the experience of humiliation and devaluation played a role. This would be caused by various police practices. Among other things, they mentioned the use of “duzen”, racist hate speech, shameful body searches, or being confronted with the wall in plain view. Self-doubt often arises in such situations. A central element is the shame of being controlled and humiliated in public space in front of the eyes of numerous passers-by. The looks of the bystanders are difficult to bear. Many interviewees were also concerned with the idea of what was going on in their heads. The passivity of passers-by is perceived as very hurtful. It seems to make the police feel even more legitimized in their actions. Supportive interference by bystanders was reported by only three of the 30 people interviewed. Without exception, however, all of them would have wished for such intervention.

In the interviews, it becomes clear that the controls generate a feeling of powerlessness in addition to shame and devaluation. This is mainly due to the lack of justification by the police, which makes arbitrary action possible in combination with the impossibility of defending oneself. This feeling of powerlessness can in turn lead to resignation, helplessness and dejection. Several interviewees recount how their experiences during the checks led them to self-reproach. Even if they initially felt the checks to be humiliating and encroaching, their processing of the experience was usually characterized by self-doubt and self-recrimination. Overcoming such feelings would have been helped above all by exchanges with others. 

Long-term consequences

Many interviewees speak extensively about these longer-term effects of their experiences with controls. A recurring feeling is the constant fear of being controlled again. For example, the presence of police officers triggers unease. The increasing presence of the police in public space thus represents a constant threat of being controlled again. Some interviewees report feelings of persecution and associated symptoms such as insomnia. As a result of this chronic stress situation, depression and anxiety disorders can develop. Experiences of violence during police operations can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorders.

Another long-term consequence is the restriction of freedom of movement in public spaces. Many study participants state that they avoid certain places or tend to take faster and more direct routes. In other cases, however, interviewees react with social withdrawal and thus experience an increased feeling of being alone. The exclusion and loneliness are exacerbated if those affected are not taken seriously by their environment. This would occur especially with white friends.

One way of dealing with these negative long-term consequences described by some interviewees is to become quieter and not express one’s own feelings, such as anger. Some also cite demonstrative conformity to the hegemonic norm (“I have to prove I’m a good citizen.”).

There is a long-term loss of trust as well as mistrust when dealing with the police. As a result, people are less willing to use police services themselves if necessary or to help solve crimes as witnesses.Finally, material disadvantages were also discussed in the interviews. One interviewee said that he had lost his job because he had been detained by the police for no reason and without being able to contact his employer. Another recounts how he lost jobs through the city as a translator after attempting to legally defend himself against a brutal police stop. There are also reports of confiscated valuables during controls or procedural costs that were hardly bearable or in some cases even prevented litigation.

The above examples show that people who experience racial profiling feel multiple, psychological, physical and economic effects. However, these often remain invisible and are rarely addressed. 

3. Resistance

Tactics for dealing with racist police stops. 

Before the control:In the interviews, the interviewees explained various tactics for dealing with police checks. Among other things, they stated that they change their movement behavior in order to avoid police checks. This includes, for example, looking as busy as possible, shortening waiting times, avoiding certain places, etc. However, some interviewees also indicated that they deliberately do not change their movement practices because they do not want to be restricted. Many tactics also serve to camouflage or attempt to become invisible in a white norm society (speaking without an accent, clothing, specific accessories, official work attire). The accompaniment by persons with white skin color is also experienced as protective. However, several interviewees, when describing their attempts to counter the controls, have to admit that they are not very successful. Some interviewees say that no matter how hard they try, they are still always perceived by the police as “different,” as a deviation from the imagined norm.

During the control:

Again, very different ways of dealing with the situation are described. Practices include: Demanding an explanation, holding up a mirror, generating attention, and asking third parties for help. 

After control: 

Three interviewees reported that they no longer wanted to let racist police stops go unaddressed and they therefore decided to take legal action. However, this is only accessible with many hurdles (lack of expertise of lawyers, possible endangerment of the residence status, financial risk). The chances of success are also low. There are several reasons for this: Police officers have good legal protection, and it can also happen that officers coordinate their statements with each other and falsify the account of events in their favor. The public prosecutor’s offices also tend to investigate in favor of the police officers, since they work closely with the police. In addition, reported police officers often respond by filing counter charges. Another risk that can arise in the context of a complaint is the repetition of discrimination in court or in media coverage.

On the other hand, court cases can be used strategically regardless of their outcome. The acquired attention and the judiciary’s preoccupation with the issue can change the way politics and society deal with the issue of racial profiling. 

How does resistance become possible?

A key prerequisite for resistance to racist police stops, described by many interviewees, is a secure residency status. If this is lacking, support from outside is even more important. However, even interviewees with secure residence status describe support in social relationships, empowering networks and safe places as crucial factors. These can serve to feel less alone, to leave the victim perspective, but also to gain practical knowledge about one’s own rights and sensible behavior in control situations. For several interviewees, in addition to conversations with familiar people, the existence of a place that is as free of discrimination as possible (safer space) is an important condition for resistance to racial profiling. The goal must therefore also be to make public space a safe and open place for everyone again – through interference, civil courage and documentation of one’s own observations of racial profiling. 

We also encourage you to read the entire publication. In impressive interviews, people under control have their say and convey a clear message. The study also contains important references to related theoretical approaches such as institutional racism, postcolonialism, intersectionality, embodiment, etc., as well as extensive knowledge about racial profiling.

[1] – (http://isdonline.de/isd-uebt-kritik-an-geplanter-polizeistudie-des-bmi-bundesministerium-des-innern-fuer-bau-und-heimat/
[2] – Link zur Studie: https://www.rosalux.de/publikation/id/40493/racial-profiling/