The police stop random passers-by to inspect their papers – but it’s always a specific group of people. The security guard at the shopping centre follows people like these, not others. At airport security, they are the ones flagged for a random spot check, again.
This is ethnic profiling, says Professor Suvi Keskinen.
According to Finnish law, the police cannot stop people based solely on the colour of their skin or on an ethnic or religious characteristic. However, this does not mean that it does not happen.
Being repeatedly singled out is a humiliating experience and can erode trust in the authorities. Targeted people feel that they are labelled as criminals with no fault of their own. They may start to feel that they are not part of society at all.
Violent security guards a source of concern
The police monitor aliens in Finland, and people are often stopped and asked to show their papers, particularly around Helsinki’s Central Railway Station, metro stops and Kaisaniemi Park.
However, the monitoring seems to particularly target people of colour, whether resident aliens or not.
When a crime is suspected, the police may stop a passer-by on very flimsy grounds. This veers into ethnic profiling if skin colour, for example, becomes such a prominent topic of attention that other characteristics, such as height, age or general features are pushed aside.
“Our material features situations where the description of a suspect is ‘young man with dark skin’, but older men have also been stopped based on the colour of their skin. Police officers often state that this is not accepted procedure. However, the situation may be different in practice,” says Keskinen.
According to Keskinen, the most flagrant problems people complained about were found in the behaviour of guards and other security staff. The groups with the most negative experiences were people of Somali or Middle Eastern descent, or eastern European immigrants, most of whom are Romani.
“Many said that security guards were often rude and treated them roughly, even violently.”
Racism among police revealed
Police undergo longer training than security staff, and this training provides better skills for interacting with different people. Keskinen believes that it is fair to expect more from the police: they are representatives of the Finnish government and exercise public authority, so it is particularly problematic if people feel that they cannot trust the police.
During the research project, an article was published on the rampant racism in a Facebook group for police. Journalist Kati Pietarinen wrote a piece in Long Play, an online publication platform dedicated to investigative journalism, revealing how police officers in the group would share news from fake media and make derogatory comments about Muslims and people of African descent. Some even joked about the attempted suicide of an asylum seeker.
“Some of the officers who were interviewed for the project mentioned the use of racist language, but most of them naturally wanted to portray their professional community in the best possible light,” says Keskinen.
Researchers targeted for harassment
Keskinen was herself an immigrant in the 1980s in Sweden. She was active in the peace movement and in the anti-apartheid movement. That is when the researcher found the basis for her political opinions and interests.
Keskinen previously studied violence experienced by immigrant women, and how the police, social workers and women’s shelters worked with them.
Racism and immigrants are not easy topics in this day and age – even for an academic researcher. Those who speak about these issues in public often become targets of harassment. Keskinen says that she has not received threats.
She believes that the best thing for a researcher to do is to ignore the hate speech and steer clear of discussion forums.
“I’m happy to participate in civil debate, but the feedback is typically less than civil and not worth my time.”
Equality training must be incorporated into police education
How can we stop ethnic profiling?
“First of all, we should recognise and admit that this is a problem that exists in Finland,” says Suvi Keskinen.
Equality issues should be covered in the training of police and security staff. Another helpful thing would be the establishment of an organisation that would help people recognise illegal treatment and support them if they want to raise the issue.
Police should not be stopping random people on the street at all. Not only is it discriminatory, the practice is a relatively ineffective method of monitoring people.
“One positive thing is that current legislation unambiguously forbids ethnic profiling and the issue is being addressed,” says Keskinen.
On the other hand, it’s possible that police will start to use euphemisms to continue ethnic profiling as before. Some officers have reported that police leadership continues to encourage them to inspect people who look “foreign”.
“The implication can be that we can’t say it, but we are still going to do it.”
The article will be published in Finnish in Yliopisto magazine 04/18.