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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

Policing and Human Rights: Eliminating Discrimination, Xenophobia, Intolerance and the Abuse of Power from Police Work



This paper examines racism, xenophobia, discrimination, intolerance and the abuse of power in policing, based upon a critical analysis of theoretical and empirical research on selected police forces in England, South Africa, Australia and the United States. It sets out a framework, founded upon international legal instruments relating to anti-discrimination policy and the governance of policing, for protecting fundamental human rights, including safety, liberty and freedom from unlawful intrusion by the state. The paper reviews the research on the control of abusive policing through structural and cultural change; explores innovations in personnel management and training; and recommends the introduction of robust mechanisms to achieve democratic accountability.

Racial discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance and the abuse of power are problems in police organizations in many parts of the world. There is evidence that many police officers hold racist and xenophobic views toward specific racial or ethnic minority groups, and that derogatory language is often used when dealing with people from economically and politically marginal-ized communities. Moreover, research suggests that supervisors are often unwilling to chal-lenge racist banter and inappropriate language. Conservatism, xenophobia and suspiciousness toward marginalized groups are common elements in police culture in each of the contexts studied, as are hostility and racial prejudice. As well as having prejudiced attitudes, there is also evidence that police officers often make decisions based upon ethnic or racial stereotypes, with resulting discrimination against particular groups. Although the relationship between prejudice and discrimination is complex, numerous studies have identified the ways in which racist ideas translate into discriminatory practices.

In many jurisdictions, ethnic, cultural and other minorities are disproportionately subject to in-trusive and coercive police powers such as “stop and search”, “on-street interrogation” and ar-rest. Research evidence suggests that disproportionate use of police power is, at least in part, a product of discrimination, and that the abuse of power is most discriminatory where police autonomy and discretion are greatest. People from minority groups are, in many places, dis-proportionately subject to the excessive use of force, including deadly force. Inquiries have un-covered intrusive and intimidatory policing, including extreme examples, such as unwarranted entry into households, physical abuse, and harassment in public places and private functions. Although patterns vary from place to place, deaths in custody and other police-related deaths more frequently tend to involve people from ethnic minority groups, both in comparison with their numbers in the general population and in comparison to the number of people arrested. Surveys in many locations suggest a widespread public perception that the police abuse their powers more often in dealing with minority suspects.

Research has also revealed barriers to the recruitment, retention and promotion of police offi-cers from minority communities. Problems in recruiting a police service that reflects the diver-sity of the community served include discrimination and abuse of ethnic minority recruits. Studies have indicated that there is a link between the internal culture of policing and the deliv-ery of services to the public. This affects not only the use of coercive police powers, but also the treatment of people from ethnic minority communities as victims, witnesses and bystanders. It is also evident that systems of police governance and handling of complaints are insufficiently robust to prevent the abuse of power.

This paper sets out a human rights framework based on existing national and international legal instruments relating to anti-discrimination policy and the regulation of policing (including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials). It provides a basis for critical evaluation of the research evidence and the development of measures to reduce racial discrimination and injustice.
Such measures include:

- attempts to ensure that police organizations reflect the diversity
of the communities served;
- measures to promote equality of opportunity and equality of
service delivery;
- structures and processes to ensure legal, political and community
accountability;
- introduction of civilian oversight measures and robust mechanisms
for handling complaints;
- the development of ethnic minority staff networks; and
innovation in education and training.

On the basis of this survey of the literature, the paper concludes with a series of recommenda-tions for the development of competent, accountable, equitable and responsive policing systems for the maintenance of community safety and the protection of fundamental human rights.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 30 May 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD