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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