What is the issue?
Ethnic profiling is one of the more disturbing and controversial issues currently confronting law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
Ethnic profiling is discriminatory treatment based on racial or ethnic background. It involves actions such as stopping people on highways or stopping and frisking people on the street. It can also happen in other situations where police interact with residents.
Since September 11, concerns over terrorism have increased and incidents of discrimination based on perceived ethnic background or religion are gaining public attention.
Who does it affect?
Ethnic profiling affects many different marginalised groups within society; however there are some communities which have become bigger targets than others.
The Australian-Muslim community have suffered acts of discrimination due to ethnic profiling. This discrimination can be linked to the way the media reports on acts of terrorism in countries around the world. The media often focuses on the religious and ethnic background of perpetrators – creating a collective public image of what a terrorist might look like or how they might behave.
The Australian Indigenous community is also affected by ethnic profiling. In February 2004, 17-year-old Thomas 'TJ' Hickey died after he crashed his bike and was impaled on a fence. It was alleged that the police were chasing Hickey at the time he crashed his bike and that they were responsible for causing the accident. Hickey’s death caused riots in Redfern, Sydney. This tragedy later caused tension between police and the Indigenous community in the local area. Residents felt that the incident was a result of ethnic profiling and discrimination on the part of the police. Ethnic profiling is thought to be a contributing factor to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons.
Skin colour and styles of dress are also factors in the issue of ethnic profiling. Indigenous, African-American and Latin American people are just some of those who have suffered from acts of discrimination due to their appearance and skin colour.
Where is it happening?
Ethnic profiling is a global issue. In Australia, acts of discrimination that are linked to ethnic profiling can happen anywhere. However, they are particularly common in low income, inner-city neighbourhoods or areas where drug use, drug sales, or other criminal activities are common.
Why is it happening?
Ethnic profiling has a long and sordid history. Past studies conducted in the United States showed that African-American drivers are 10 times more likely to be targeted by the police than Caucasians. In addition, one in five Latin American and Asian males also reported being stopped unfairly by police for no reason other than discrimination. This treatment creates substantial resentment and fear of law enforcement among ethnic minorities – which seems to perpetuate the practice of ethnic discrimination among authorities.
The controversy around this issue has been heightened by the present war on terrorism. Stereotypes of Muslims (particularly those of Middle Eastern appearance) have come to be based on the fanatics who masterminded the tragic acts of September 11.
Is ethnic profiling necessary?
Some people believe that ethnic profiling is needed for safety reasons, because “we’re living in a new world where we have to rebalance freedom and security” (Constable Richard Gephardt). It’s better to be safe than sorry and people with nothing to hide should have nothing to fear. Being extra suspicious could save thousands of lives.
Other people feel it is discriminative and dangerous, and that innocent people often pay the price of gross mistreatment. To be suspected of a crime because of the colour of your skin is a very offensive and hurtful assumption for those involved. In 2005 a Brazilian man names Jean Charles de Menzes was mistaken for a terrorist by British police. He was killed purely on the basis of his appearance. This event caused global outrage.
NSW - ethnic descriptors:
The use of ethnic descriptors in the media is one example of racial profiling in Australia. This happens when a particular race is mentioned in relation to a crime. National standards dictate that police can no longer use racial terms such as ‘Middle Eastern’ when describing suspects in media reports. NSW is the only state that doesn’t follow these rules.
The Australian Middle Eastern Christian Council
believes that the common use of the term 'Middle Eastern' worsens racial tension by creating a false link between race and crime. The way racial descriptors are used in NSW has been criticised by other states as racist and unnecessary. But the Minister for Police disagrees, claiming that ethnic descriptors help identify people quickly and effectively.
Police have also defended the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad
, which was created in NSW in May 2006. The aim of MEOCS is to target organised crime in Middle Eastern communities. Many people believe this fuels racial tension, and want the squad to change its title. But NSW police believe the squad exists because there is a need for it. They maintain that many of the victims they seek to protect are also Middle Eastern, and that the Squad helps to keep up good relations with the community.
This page was updated by kate elise
How do I know this?
‘Community praised as Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad marks 1st anniversary’, NSW Police Force (2007) http://www.police.nsw.gov.au/news/
Crabb, A. 2006, ‘The look of a terrorist? It was a police fantasy’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/the-look-of-a-terrorist-it-was-a-police-fantasy/2005/08/17/1123958125899.html
Farrim, K ‘Ethnic Profiling: Ethnic Barbarians at the Gates’, The Wharton Journal, 11 November 2002, http://www.whartonjournal.com/media/paper201/news/
Florida Police Chiefs Association, http://www.fpca.com/profiling.htm
Kamel, K.M., ‘Two Years After September 11, Two Worlds at War’ (2003) http://islamicsydney.com/story.php?id=1145
Siggins, P., ‘Racial Profiling in an Age of Terrorism’, Santa Clara University (2007) http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/ethicalperspectives/
Tadros, E. ‘Police urged to change ethnic labels’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2007,, http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/police-urged-to-change-ethnic-labels/2007/04/23/1177180569482.html/.com
Wainwright, R. 2006, ‘Which faces fit Middle East tag?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July, http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/which-faces-fit-middle-east-tag/2006/07/14/1152637872158.html