Racial profiling

What is Racial Profiling?

Racial profiling occurs when police stop, question, search or detain a person because of their race.

Racial profiling is a form of discrimination which violates basic human rights and contributes to inefficient and ineffective policing. There is little evidence that racial profiling is an effective approach to combating crime. 1

Racial profiling causes alienation, exclusion, unnecessary criminalisation, disengagement, detrimental health and socio-economic impacts. 2 Furthermore it inhibits minority groups from reporting crimes and seeking assistance from police and generates high levels of distrust. 3

Victorian Police LEAP data analysed by  eminent statistician, Professor Ian Gordon from the Univeristy of Melbourne in Haile-Michael & Ors v Konstantinidis & Ors revealed that between 2006-2009, Africans in the Flemington and North Melbourne area were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police than other groups despite having a lower crime rate.

These statistics provide evidence for the existence of racial profiling in Victoria.  Qualiative research evidence across Victoria reveals racial profiling has been an ongoing problem for many years. 4

The justification given for such policing rests on their supposedly high representation in local crime statistics. Yet Professor Gordon found that the same police LEAP data revealed a significant under-representation of the stopped young African Australians in the crime figures.  A summary of the findings and links to the full reports can be found here.

Furthermore, overt operational orders by Victoria Police have been known to target African youth.  For example the Chief Commissioner has agreed that Operation Molto in 2006 targeted African youth. Any operation that targets people for law enforcement scrutiny because of their race is racial discrimination.

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 makes it unlawful for a person to be treated differently from others on the basis of their race, religion or other characteristic. This requirement is elaborated in Section 8 of the Charter of Human Rights.

A person’s ethnicity does not make it more or less likely that they have committed or are likely to commit an offence.

Health impacts of Racial Profiling

Yin Paradies SmallAssociate Professor Yin Paradies, Co-Director of the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, in Victoria presented at a Public Forum on Racial Profiling in April 2013.

His presentation, Racism, Racial Profiling and Health, is available here.

Racially Biased Policing

In summary, racially biased policing ‘occurs when law enforcement inappropriately considers race or ethnicity in deciding with whom and how to intervene in an enforcement capacity.’[2] Racially biased policing occurs in Victoria, and there are instances of both explicit and implicit bias in the policing methods used by Victoria Police.

Racially biased policing, or racial profiling is a widespread phenomenon internationally.[3] In many countries, such as the UK, Canada, the EU and the US the phenomenon has been recognised as a problem for some years and substantial steps have been taken to try and address it.[4]  These examples show that racial profiling, especially against young men of African descent, occurs in police forces in Western countries comparable to Australia.

It would be naïve to think that Victoria Police is any different. Indeed, Victoria Police’s exposure to young men of African descent is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and the documents produced in the Haile-Michael case show many of the features which first initiated public concern in England and the USA decades ago. However, methods of policing of indigenous and new migrant communities have long reflected institutional and implicit biases towards people of colour in Victoria.


Racial discrimination, in the form of racially biased policing, has a number of harmful effects. Not only on the community who are racial or ethnic minorities, but on the ability of the police to perform their role. If the community does not have confidence in the police the community are far less likely to report crimes or participate in criminal investigations.[5]

Apart from impeding the police in their duties, it also means that vulnerable members of the community are made more vulnerable as they feel they do not have resources to protect their rights and personal safety.

Racial biased policing causes communities to feel disengaged from the wider Victorian community as a result of feeling over-surveilled and singled out for different treatment.[6] Where this occurs, police are not only failing to uphold the rights of some sections of the community, they are also contributing to the disengagement of some groups from broader society.

[1] Tracey G Gove, ‘Implicit Bias and Law Enforcement’ (2011) The Police Chief 44, 44.

[2] Lorie Fridell et al, Racially Biased Policing: A Principled Response (Police Executive Research Forum, 2001) 49.

[3] See eg, Ben Bowling and Corrette Phillips, ‘Policing Ethnic Minority Communities’ in Tim Newburn (ed) Handbook of Policing (Willan Publishing, 2003) 528, Lorie A Fridell, ‘Racially Biased Policing: the Law Enforcement Response to the Implicit Black-Crime Association’ in Michael J Lynch, Britt Patterson and Kristina Childs (eds) Racial Divide: Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Criminal Justice System (Criminal Justice Press, 2008) 39, Haile-Michael.

[4] See eg, Institute on Race and Justice, Northeastern University, ‘Promoting Strategies to Reduce Racial Profiling’ (COPS Evaluation Brief No 1, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2008), Ottawa Police Service, ‘Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project’ <http://ottawapolice.ca/en/community/diversitymatters/racialprofiling.aspx>; Equality and Human Rights Commission, ‘Stop and Think Again: Towards Race Equality in Police PACE Stop and Search’ (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 6 June 2013), Open Society Justice Initiative, Addressing Ethnic Profiling by Police: A Report on the Strategies for Effective Police Stop and Search Project (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2009).

[5] Lorie Fridell at al, above n 12, 6.

[6] Bec Smith and Shane Reside, Boys, You Wanna Give Me Some Action? Interventions into Policing of Racialised Communities in Melbourne (Report of the 2009/10 Racism Project, Springvale Monash Legal Service, 2010).

Explicit Bias

Explicit bias is what most people understand by bias, or discrimination – where a racist belief manifests as discriminatory behaviour. The Submission documented numerous examples of where members of Victorian Police have engaged in explicitly biased behaviour. For example, in the derogatory racist language used towards young men of African ethnicity,[8] or in the racial profiling used in policing strategies such as Operation Molto.[9]

Many clients of The Police Accountability Project (PAP) and individuals report extraordinary levels of explicit racial abuse during police encounters in Victoria.

[The police officer] asked: “have you had anything to drink?”. I said: no. He proceeded back to his police vehicle and a couple of minutes later they both come back and he conducted a breath test. He said: “well well well it appears you’re clean,” with a condescending tone. I said, “of course I am, thank you very much.” He said: “not too soon, you’s black cunts stink and we’re bound to find some shit on you.” At that point I was extremely upset, I said: “Excuse me, did you seriously just say that?”, He said, raising his voice: “get the fuck out of the car now.” I said: “that’s not right what have I done wrong, and this is racism”. He said: “I am only going to tell you one more time before I use a language you can understand you fucking nigger!!” while he placed one hand on the door and the other on his belt I believe the capsicum spray or baton. I opened the door and stepped out, He immediately grabbed my shirt on my chest and pushed me against the car, came close to my face and said “You wanna be a smart arse you won’t see the day light you fucking black cunt.”

–       28 year old Black African Australian, Submitted to Victoria Police community consultation, Monday 29 July 2013.

Training against this form of explicit racial remains a significant challenge for      Victoria Police.  Some reports suggest that the racist behaviours and attitudes of police members are selective

“I see the way they talk to other communities. They speak professionally to other community members. But when they speak to Africans they use street language. How can we learn to do the right things when the police treat us with so badly. For example the police the police call me “Rat” “Black Cunt” “Fuck you” “Go back to where you come from”. This is the police telling us this. How are we going to get a sense of security when this is going on.”

– 27 year old, Australia Sudanese man, Submitted to Victoria Police community consultation Wednesday 17 July 2013.

How extensive this sort of overt racism is currently unknown but clear leadership and command group will be necessary to confront these areas of overt and explicit racism within Victoria Police.

Implicit Bias

Implicit violence is where ostensibly tolerant individuals unconsciously  associate  certain racial and ethnic groups with violence, or criminality.[10]

Connecticut Police Captain Tracey Gove, writes:

The study of implicit bias has important implications for police leaders. Police officers are human and, as the theory contends, may be affected by implicit biases just as any other individual. In other words, well-intentioned officers who err may do so not as a result of intentional discrimination, but because they have what has been proffered as widespread human biases. Social psychologists do not contend that implicit bias should be a scapegoat for unethical police behavior; however, an understanding that biased police behavior could be manifested by even well-intentioned officers who have human biases can reduce police defensiveness around this issue and motivate change.[11]

Training programmes that concentrate on implicit bias mean that the focus shifts from a conception of blame against a ‘few’ ill-intentioned officers acting in a racially biased manner, to the question of how cultural associations that many in the community hold can contribute to racially biased policing.

Instead of seeking to weed out, shame or discipline the overtly or explicitly racist members, Victoria Police can provide an institution-wide commitment for all members or all ranks to work on their own unconscious and implicit bias.

Dr. Lorie Fridell, former Director of Research at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), is a US expert on racially biased policing.  She has authored and co-authored a number of chapters and books on the topic.  She explains:

  • Even the best officers, because they are human, might practice racially biased policing
  • Even the best agencies, because they hire humans, will have racially biased police.[12]

Social psychologists have developed myriad instruments to measure impact bias

The largest class of instruments relies on reaction time analysis. The most widely used is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures reaction time to certain stimuli. The centrepiece for research into implicit bias is Project Implicit, a collaborative effort among research scientists, technicians, and laboratories at Harvard University; the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. A host of associations are tested by the IAT including biases to race, skin tone, gender, age, and weight. The IAT is likened to a sorting game played on a computer and is available to the general public at www.implicit.harvard.edu

During the test, the participant is asked to sort categories of pictures and words. The premise is that two concepts closely associated in the participant’s mind should be easier to pair: “If the word ‘red’ is painted in the colour red, the participant will be faster in stating its color than if the word ,green’ is painted in red.”

After seven years of research, the general findings from Project Implicit are summarized as follows:

  • Implicit biases are pervasive. They appear as statistically “large” effects that are often shown by majorities of samples of Americans. More than 80 percent of web respondents show implicit negativity toward the elderly compared to the young; 75 percent to 80 percent of self-identified whites and Asians show an implicit preference for racial white relative to black.
  •  People are often unaware of their implicit biases. Ordinary people, including the researchers who direct this project, are found to harbor negative associations in relation to various social groups (that is, implicit biases) even while honestly reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.
  • Implicit biases predict behavior. From simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to more consequential acts such as the evaluation of work quality; those who are higher in implicit bias have been shown to display greater discrimination.
  • people differ in levels of implicit bias. Implicit biases vary from person to person-for example, as a function of a person‘s group memberships, the dominance of a persons membership group in society, consciously held attitudes, and the level of bias existing in the immediate environment. This last observation makes clear that implicit attitudes are modified by experience.[13]

The Black-Crime Association

The basis implicit bias is people of colour, and especially men, are associated with violent behaviour and criminality.[14]

This unconscious association of people of colour with violent, aggressive and criminal behaviour continues to influence how people perceive the activities of people of colour.

Ben Bowling and Coretta Phillips write:

Research evidence over the past three decades has found that specific  stereotypes are commonly used by police officers to classify people on  the basis of their ethnic origin …

Stereotypes of black people have been more consistent in that they are thought to be more prone to violent crime and drug  abuse, to be  incomprehensible, suspicious,  hard to handle, naturally excitable,  aggressive, lacking brainpower, troublesome and ‘tooled up’ (Graef 1989; Reiner 1991). These findings have not been restricted to constables but have been found throughout the ranks (see Reiner 1991: 44).[15]

The association of blackness with outsider status and criminality in turn increases the likelihood of having negative and hostile reactions to black men, and negative engagement with them.[16]

For example, studies on shooter bias have shown that people are far more likely to assume a black person is holding a gun than a white person, and to perceive them as a threat.[17]

Further, automatic implicit biases can cause officers to misinterpret Black’s behaviour as suspicious or aggressive, even if the actions are neutral in nature.’[18]

Implicit racial bias is more insidious and difficult to detect than overt or explicit racial bias, and therefore more difficult to address.[19]  This is because people who genuinely believe that they don’t hold racial biases until they have been shown to do so.[20]

There is a growing literature about the prevalence of implicit bias in how people view different community groups.[21]

Implicit biases are caused by the human brain taking necessary shortcuts in order to cope with the amount of information that it continually has to process.[22]


[8] Submission Chapters 1 and 2.

[9] Submission 1.15.

[10] Fridell, above n 13, 39.

[11] Gove, above n 11, 50.

[12] Fridell and Goff, above n 2, 72.

[13] Gove, above n 11, 46.

[14] E Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche, ‘The Consequences of Race for Police Officers’ Responses to Criminal Suspects’ (2005) 16 Psychological Science 180, 180.

[15] Bowling and Phillips, above n 13, 528.

[16] Jennifer L Eberhardt et al, ‘Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing’ (2004) 87 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 876, 876.

[17] Melody Sadler et al, ‘The World is not Black and White: Racial Bias in the Decision to shoot in a Multiethnic Context’ (2012) 68 Journal of Social Issues 286, 286.

[18] Staats, above n 8, 36.

[19] Patricia G Devine et al, ‘Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components’ (1989) 56 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5, 5.

[20] Staats, above n 8, 13; Fridell, above n 13, 41.

[21] Gove, above n 11, 56.

[22] Staats, above n 8, 78.

Videos on Racial Profiling

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  1. Open Society Justice Initiative, “Reducing Ethnic Profiling in the European Union – A Handbook of Good Practices”, p 27.
  2. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/paying-price-human-cost-racial-profiling, http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/whats_new/default-eng.aspx?id=590
  3. See for example, the Ethiopean community’s distrust in the effectiveness of the Footscray Police Investigation of the Death of Michael Atakelt. In this case, the distrust was supported by the Coroner.http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/coroner-tells-police-to-reinvestigate-death-20130215-2eia2.html
  4. See for example, VREOC, “Rights of Passage” 2008, 2009; FKCLC, “Race or Reason” 2011; Springvale Monash et al, “Boys Do you wanna give me some Action” 2010.