Racial profiling a simmering debate for Zürich

The headline of the Tages Anzeiger newspaper was provocative: “Wanted by Police: Black men.”  Those words were prompted by a report by Zurich’s ombudswoman, who fields public complaints about city services.  The report highlighted a handful of cases of discrimination or racial profiling.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

On a Sunday afternoon three black men, two in their thirties and another in his 60s, stand in Zurich’s train station, drinking beers.  Three police approach the men and ask for their IDs, asking questions for 5 or so minutes, before leaving.  The men are Eritrean, and say that happens all the time—“a normal check” one of them says.  But the city’s ombudswoman Claudia Kaufmann says more and more people are complaining such checks are discriminatory.

Kaufmann says it has been observed for years that young, black males have more often than others been questioned, searched or detained in Zurich even if they showed identification, and were not under investigation.  Though she doesn’t give specifics, the number of such cases increased into double digits last year.

Kaufmann says if someone shows ID, and police see there is no reason to continue questioning a person, the police should return the ID and leave.  But in many cases the police continue anyway, handcuffing people or searching them.  And she says that is not acceptable.

Marco Cortesi is a Zurich police spokesman.  He says it is absolutely not systematic, that dark-skinned persons are questioned and police act on individual cases.

Cortesi says the police are not racists, and they don’t condone racism.  Police are schooled in such issues before going into the field.  He says the drug trade is flourishing in certain districts, controlled by mostly black Africans, and in those districts darker skinned individuals are questioned more often than in other places.

DANIEL MÖCKLI: “The problem with racial profiling is not racism.”

Daniel Möckli is a senior lecturer in public law at the University of Zurich.

MÖCKLI:  “Racial profiling is a structural problem and the first reaction of police to the report was to say ‘our police officers are not racists.’  Well, that’s not the issue. Even if the police do not intentionally target ethnic minorities there may be racial profiling.”

Möckli says the ombudswoman’s report only named a limited number of cases, which is a first in terms of specific examples of possible discrimination.  But it doesn’t show how big a problem this is.

MÖCKLI:  “In the United Kingdom the police have a duty to record the race or ethnicity of the persons they are stopping.  So there you can actually tell you are [for example] 5 times more likely of being stopped if you are Asian, or black.  And we don’t have that in Switzerland.”

The most comprehensive look at police methods in Switzerland came in 2007 in a report from Amnesty International.  Denise Graf authored the study, and is the organization’s coordinator for human rights issues in Switzerland.

She says she worked with members of the black community to gauge the extent of discrimination problems, and brought her findings to two police departments.

GRAF:  “In 2005 and 6 the police of Basel made a very good sensibilization [sensitivity]campaign and the success of this training was really visible for us, and also for the black community. So we proposed for the police of Zurich to do the same thing, but unfortunately they haven’t really done.”

Graf is now involved in a Zurich working group for racial profiling issues, but she says attention from police leadership, along with concrete proposals for improvement are slow coming.  City ombudswoman Claudia Kaufmann says Switzerland’s laws are weak when it comes to anti-discrimination.  But she says slowly, there is a realization that social issues dealt with in other countries, are now being faced in Switzerland.

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