Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lack of will to hold Finland police accountable for racism

A stunning revelation by an online investigative journalism site put the spot on racism in the Finnish police force. Finland's Minister of Interior, the National Police Commissioner and the National Police Board released purportedly strong statements in the aftermath of the scandal -- professing "zero tolerance" for racism and pledging a thorough investigation into the matter. But talk is cheap. It is easier said than done.

On 3 June 2017 Long Play published a report about widespread racist commentary in closed Facebook group made up of about 2,800 Finnish police officers. The report included screenshots of some of the comments. One member of the group for instance claimed that people of African descent do not succeed anywhere in the world for reasons including culture and genetics. Another member of the group claimed that Islam is an expansionist religion and that Europe is a victim. According to Long Play, immigrants and Muslims were smeared in many discussions and immigration-related articles and video from known anti-immigration propaganda groups were shared in the group. Police officers in the group mocked an asylum seeker who attempted suicide and a rapper who accused the police of racial profiling. The report also revealed that the head of a national anti-hate speech online task force was once a moderator of the group and moderators didn't intervene to stop racist comments.

Long Play also published an in-depth article on racial profiling. According to the article, ethnic profiling is illegal but it happens in Finland continuously - according to Finns belonging to minority groups and police officers who interact with minorities as part of their job. One police officer interviewed for the article acknowledged that he has "certainly" carried out ethnic profiling. "Olen tehnyt etnistä profilointia itsekin, tietysti", he said. He acknowledged profiling the Roma and dark-skinned people.

Following publication of the report the Minister of Interior Paula Rusikko and the National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen sprang into action and proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism. They pledged a full investigation. The National Police Board also announced that the material published by Long Play had been handed to the Office of the Prosecutor General to determine whether a preliminary investigation should be launched. The board also proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism and hate speech in the police force, and stated that it had launched an investigation into ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring.

On 11.7.2017 the National Police Board cleared police of ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring. And according to Yle a District Prosecutor, Laura Sairanen, decided the previous week not to launch a preliminary investigation into openly racist postings in the police Facebook group.

My Take

District prosecutor Sairanen and the National Police Board had an opportunity to partially restore confidence in the Finnish police force among people of African descent and other minority groups like Muslims and the Roma but they blew it.

In my earlier blog post related to the marvelous piece of investigative journalism by Long Play I gave the Finnish police force benefit of the doubt in my assessment of whether or not racism is a structural problem in the force. I argued that one ingredient was lacking for the matter to rise to the level of a structural problem: legitimization and normalization of racism. The district prosecutor and the National Police Board just normalized and legitimized openly racist actions by Finnish police officers online and offline by basically rubbishing serious allegations of racism and ethnic profiling.

According to Long Play, there was erroneous information in the decision of the prosecutor. One of the grounds for not pursuing the matter reportedly put forward by the District Prosecutor assigned to the case is that identities of those who posted comments in the Facebook group are not known. The claim doesn't hold water, according to Long Play, because names were visible in over 50 screenshots handed over to the office of the Prosecutor General. Another reason for turning a blind eye to the openly racist comments is that the plaintiffs or injured parties have not made a police report of an offence. How convenient! The prosecutor reportedly wrote in her decision that the Facebook comments seem to have been written during the police officers' free time although according to Long Play postings were made in the Facebook police group at all times of the day, and the prosecutor didn't bother to ask the police board or police departments for clarification about working hours. Again -- how convenient!

The National Police Board on its part also dropped the ball on the investigation into ethnic profiling. According to a statement by the board the investigation focused on immigration monitoring, and police departments' immigration monitoring guidelines and practices were examined. The board also examined whether police departments have had to intervene in illegal ethnic profiling cases. The investigation found four cases in which officials' actions had been looked into for possible ethnic profiling but no wrongdoing was found. On these basis the board cleared police of ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring. Mindful of the fact that the probe was sparked by a report by Long Play that alleged routine ethnic profiling, it is unclear if the National Police Board actually read the detailed report and made an effort to contact at least some - if not all - of the victims of alleged ethnic profiling who were interviewed for the report. A total of 94 people belonging to minority groups, 12 police officers and 6 people who know about the subject through their work were reportedly interviewed by Long Play but the National Police Board's investigation seems to have limited itself to looking at paperwork provided by various police departments and then concluding that there is no illegal ethnic profiling.

A Twitter user summarized the investigation by the National Police Board in one tweet:

The board basically asked police departments if they practice ethnic profiling. None of the departments said they do hence the board cleared police of wrongdoing.

Besides the superficial nature of the investigation it is also problematic that it focused on immigration monitoring although the report that triggered the investigation raised ethnic profiling of Finnish Roma individuals who are not subject to the Aliens Act but are reportedly eagerly stopped by traffic police.

The way I see it, the District Prosecutor and the National Police Board didn't carry out a "full" investigation as pledged by the Minister of Interior and the National Police Commissioner. They rushed the investigation and bungled it. It's hard to imagine that a comprehensive and impartial investigation into such a serious matter was completed by both the office of the Prosecutor General and the National Police Board in about six weeks. Perhaps an independent commission should be set up to look into the matter.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Is racism a structural problem in Finland's police force?

There are certain places where expressions of racist, Islamophobic or anti-immigrant sentiments are expected but a police Facebook group is not one of them. Open racism among police officers negatively impacts public confidence in the police force, and when a racism scandal hits a police force or any other state institution concerns about whether or not racism is a structural problem in the affected institution are well-founded. A Facebook group of Finnish police officers was uncovered and screenshots of postings in the group sparked public outcry and concerns about structural racism in the Finnish police force.

In June 2017 Long Play, a Finnish online magazine, published a damning report about openly racist and anti-immigrant comments in a closed Facebook group. According to the report, openly racist commentary is common in the police group and the group's moderators, including the head of Finnish police online hate speech task force did not eagerly intervene. Over a hundred screenshots of comments posted in the group were turned over to Long Play. The report reveals that police officers shared articles and videos from known anti-immigration propaganda sources across Europe and foreigners and Muslims were slandered in many discussions. For instance, one participant commented that Islam is an expansive religion and Europe is a victim; another police officer claimed that people of African origin do not succeed in any part of the world for reasons including culture and genetics. Others mocked an asylum seeker who attempted suicide and a rapper who demanded an apology for alleged racial profiling of his mother and sister by the police.

Fallout from the report was swift and uncompromising. On the part of the public condemnation was loud and clear. A concerned member of the public, for instance, argued in a blog that when over one third of the police belong to a racist group the problem is structural. The blog post is based on news reports that about one third of Finland's police officers belong to the Facebook group in question. According to Yle the group has about 2,800 members and last year there were 7,250 police officers in Finland in 2016. This begs the question: Is racism in the Finnish police force a structural problem?

My Take

As a person of African descent news of the existence of a racist police Facebook group dented my confidence in the Finnish police force - as I stated in an earlier blog post. Based on the content of the Facebook group as revealed by Long Play, there are, without a doubt, racists, xenophobes and Islamophobes in the Finnish police force. How the powers that be, including the National Police Commissioner, chiefs of various police departments and the Prosecutor General respond to the revelation is a determining factor as to whether or not racism is a structural or institutional problem in the force. The fact that there are racist police officers and one third of the country's police officers belong to a racist group on Facebook is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the problem is "structural" -- as argued here.

Structural racism, according to the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004), refers to "a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with 'whiteness' and disadvantages associated with 'color' to endure and adapt over time." According to Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA), structural racism is the "normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics - historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal - that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic outcomes for people of color".

Now, the question is, - is racism built into the fabric of the Finnish police force by way of policies, practices and norms that perpetuate, normalize and legitimize racial inequity?

The report by Long Play sparked immediate response by Finland's Minister of Interior and the National Police Commissioner. Both of them condemned racism, proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism and pledged that the openly racist and xenophobic comments made by police officers will be fully investigated. The National police Board said it will hand over screenshots of comments to the Prosecutor General. Meanwhile  Marko Forss who was at one point a moderator the Facebook group was swiftly relieved of his duties as head of anti-hate speech task force investigating online hate speech online. The police board also announced that ethnic profiling - another issue raised by Long Play in its in-depth report - is not allowed and launched an investigation into the legality of foreigner surveillance practices. The prompt response by police leadership suggest that racism in the Finnish police force is neither structural nor institutional. In a structurally racist institution leadership, I think, would turn a blind eye and Marko Forss, for example, would still hold his post. The authorities took good preliminary steps in the right direction in the immediate aftermath of the scandal. However, further action is needed against all other officers involved. Failure to sanction or charge and prosecute all those whose comments meet the standard under Finland's ethnic agitation law would intentionally or unintentionally produce an outcome that puts a racial group at a disadvantage, and could lend credence to the assertion that racism is a structural problem in the police force.

Some comments in the racist police group on Facebook definitely meet the standard of agitation against a religious group. Worthy of honorable mention is the ludicrous assertion reportedly made by a police officer in the group that Islam is an "expansive religion" and "Europe is a victim". Such a comment is emblematic of a twisted world view shared by far-right extremists like Anders Breivik who went on a mass killing spree in in Norway in the summer of 2011. It is extremely disturbing that such a view is shared by a police officer. While there are definitely racists in the police force who carry out practices such as racial profiling that have adverse outcomes on people of African descent and members of the Roma minority group the practices have not been "normalized" and "legitimized" by the National Police Board or prosecutors - at least not yet. Racial profiling, for example, is outlawed in the Aliens Act and in the police code of conduct, according to the Finnish police board. Also in the immediate aftermath of the scandal the rector of the police academy, according to Helsingin Sanomat, sent an email to students and staff of the academy in which he stated, amongs other things, that expression of racist opinions by police is unacceptable. According to the rector this stance is not debatable.

In addition to criminal charges and prosecutions the National Police Board should implement long term sustainable solutions such as compulsory human rights education for all police officers. In the wake of the Facebook racism scandal the Secretary General of Finnish League for Human Rights (Ihmisoikeusliitto) wrote a blog post in which she called for compulsory human rights education for all police. Besides human rights education she floated the idea of inclusion of some sort of "attitude test" in police entrance exams and the recruitment of more representatives of minority groups. Racial prejudice is widespread among members of the Finnish police force based on what was revealed in what I consider to be a marvelous piece of investigative journalism by Long Play, which includes a 40-page article on ethnic profiling by Finnish police. All ideas that could help curb the problem and restore confidence in police among affected groups in the country should be considered. Compulsory human rights education is a good start.

Based on the definition of "structural racism" and the damning revelation by Long Play, it is plausible to conclude that Finland's police force is eerily close to having racism as a structural problem. The only missing ingredient to complete the recipe is normalization and legitimization of racist practices. Failure by police leadership to adequately deal with the serious allegations of racist conduct by police officers online would seriously damage trust and confidence in the Finnish police force -- especially among ethnic minority communities, including people of African descent, Muslims and members of the Finnish Roma minority group.

UPDATE: 12.7.2017

A district prosecutor decided not to launch a criminal investigation into the Facebook police group and the National Police Board cleared police of unlawful ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring.

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