Selection by law enforcement: skin deep or complex equation?

Selection by law enforcement: skin deep or complex equation?

Recent media reports claim that the Dutch police makes decisions based on ethnicity and skin colour. But if you read more about decision making by the police, you’ll see it is not as simple as that.

As Maartje van der Woude and Joanne van der Leun mentioned in their blog of December 11th, ethnic profiling has been receiving quite a lot of attention in mainstream media. The reason for this increasing attention is two reports by Amnesty International and the Open Society Justice Initiative. Soon after the release of both reports, newspapers started writing about racist police culture and selection based on ethnicity. But what these news items seem to miss is the complete picture regarding selection by the police and other law enforcement agencies.

As part of a research project that aims to gain insights into decision making and selection by law enforcement agencies, I recently conducted a literature review. The result was an analysis of 49 international publications, which describes what factors play a role in the decision by law enforcement officers to stop a person. The results show there is a lot more to it than just skin colour.

Some examples of other factors

When you start looking for research on decision making and profiling, you find that most of what has been written does focus on skin colour and ethnicity. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find that a lot more factors are at play. The two most obvious ones are gender and age. Research paints a pretty clear picture for both of these; men arise suspicion more than women and the same goes for young people in relation to older people. The reason for this is also pretty straightforward. Men commit more crime compared to women and young people commit more crime compared to older people.

Nationality is also of importance. As mentioned by a Canadian border security officer in one of the publications: some passports are better than others. Law enforcement officers associate certain countries with certain types of crime. For example drug trafficking from Jamaica or South America and money laundering from Asian countries.

Clothing can be part of the equation too. Hoodies and caps attract attention. The reason for this is that a face can be hidden behind these items. Bulky clothing or bomber jackets can be used to hide stolen items.

The way someone acts can put him or her in the spotlight of law enforcement. What is mentioned most in research is evasive behaviour. Turning away when an officer approaches you doesn't work in your favour. The same goes for avoiding eye contact. People who avoid eye contact at all cost and stare blankly ahead attract attention. There is even a name for this: the felony stare. The reasoning behind this is simple: you only avoid contact with law enforcement officers if you have something to hide.

Then there is behaviour on the road. Braking suddenly when law enforcement officers are approaching and driving under the speed limit puts you on the radar. The police reason that people who follow the rules perfectly want to avoid being pulled over because they are hiding something.

Cars themselves can play a role too. Flashy paintjobs, large spoilers and big rims not only catch the eye of passersby, but also law enforcement officers. Heavily modified cars are associated with crime because it is assumed that criminals like to show off their wealth in this way. Rental cars are on the radar too, as criminals prefer not to use their own car to avoid the risk of it being impounded.

It takes >1 to tango

These are just a few of the many factors that could trigger the attention of law enforcement agencies. What research shows, though, is that a single factor is not enough to arouse suspicion. According to police officers interviewed in multiple research projects, it is almost always a combination of factors that makes them spring into action. So, claiming that selection is based on appearance and/or ethnicity alone is not in line with what research shows. It can of course be part of the equation, but in itself it carries no weight. Therefore, before organisations like Amnesty International or the Open Society Justice Initiative make claims of widespread ethnic profiling and selection based on skin colour, it would be wise for them to read a bit more of the available research or, even better, do some empirical research themselves.

If you would like to read more on profiling and decision making, see the article written (in Dutch) by Maartje van de Woude and myself in the upcoming release of PROCES, Journal for Criminal Justice. It gives a good insight into the complexity of selection and decision making by law enforcement agencies. At the moment we are conducting our own research on decision making in border areas, so hopefully we will be able to add our own empirical research to the debate.


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