Ever since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, ethnic profiling has become a contentious issue around the globe. To get a better picture of the status quo, the Vienna-based EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) recently published a new paper comparing rates of police stops across European states, the first at the supranational level.
Austria was a clear stand-out: 25% of the general population claimed they had been stopped by the police in the 12 months preceding the survey. Similarly high rates were only reported in Estonia (24%) and Ireland (21%); conversely, in France or Germany only 17% of the general population reported being stopped in the past year.
The study also revealed a grim statistic: individuals from Sub-Saharan Africa experienced almost twice as many police stops as the general Austrian population, with nearly 50% stating that they have been halted by the police in the past 12 months. In contrast, this figure is much lower for Turks, whom the Austrian authorities stopped only 22% of the time on average.
A similarly large disparity between the general population and ethnic minorities is only discernible in Greece and Croatia, where 33% of Roma, but only 18% or 19% of the general population recounted such experiences with the police.
Of those stopped among the general population, 87% were using a vehicle. In contrast, 72% of descendants from Sub-Saharan Africa were stopped while on foot. This affects how citizens perceive the police: 76% of the general population felt the authorities treated them appropriately, while only 28% of individuals from Sub-Saharan Africa and 66% of Turks believed the police behaved professionally towards them.
Sami Nevala, a policy coordinator in the FRA’s research and data unit and author of this study, attributes the disproportionate number of police stops reported by individuals from Sub-Saharan Africa to the “lack of colonial history” in Austria.
“In countries with a colonial history, there may have been an earlier pretense of, for example, minority groups, such as people from Sub-Saharan African countries,” Nevala told Metropole. “While in Austria, this is a newer migrant group; therefore, maybe society hasn’t had a long time to get used to their existence as in some other countries in Europe.”
Nevala believes that the longer minorities reside in a country, the less likely authorities are to target members of that group. According to him, this explains why people of Turkish descent experience police stops less frequently: “They have already been present within Austrian society for quite a long time compared to people from Sub-Saharan African countries.”
Advocates at ZARA (Civil Courage & Anti-Racism-Work) state that these findings reveal how much anti-racism work still needs to be done in the country. “Just like our entire society, the Austrian police still has a racism problem,” managing director Caroline Kerschbaumer said in a written statement. “It is important to take a close look at the police because they are allowed to exercise executive power and therefore also bear a special responsibility.” Kerschbaumer believes that it is “high time” for a national action plan against racism, such as the one proposed by Black Voices, which formed out of the Viennese Black Lives Matter protest last summer.
The FRA study was released on March 25, the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. According to Nevala, his murder was a key motivator for the production of this paper, as it heightened the relevance of the issue of discriminatory practices.
However, the study had been in the works since 2016. It is part of a larger effort by the European Union to survey discrimination within the bloc, which began with the EU’s adoption of its first anti-racism legislation, the Race Equality Directive, in 2000. Prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and ethnic origin, the FRA has been conducting similar surveys documenting the experiences of immigrants and ethnic minorities ever since this legislation was implemented, hoping to raise awareness both within the region and among EU lawmakers.
Nevala hopes the results of this latest study will help outlaw ethnic profiling and produce more informed training policies. For example, European states could require officers to document each stop and hand individuals notes explaining the reason they are being stopped. Already empolyed in the United Kingdom, this method enables a person to file a complaint if they feel they have been treated unfairly.
“We call on the member states to take action to ensure that people are treated equally, respectfully, and with dignity by the police,” Nevala told Metropole. “We demand that the police are trained in how to carry out stops.”