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Tribunal rules against police in racial profiling case

Two black women complained about police discrimination when they were stopped and handcuffed by a man who they say did not explain that he was a police officer.

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Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

Helsinki police practised ethnic profiling and discrimination in their vice unit, according to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal of Finland.

In a ruling published on Friday, the tribunal found that two Finnish citizens of Tanzanian origin were walking through Helsinki city centre in the early hours of the morning when plain-clothes police officers stopped them and asked to see their identity documents.

The women refused to show their papers, prompting the police to handcuff and search them. They were subsequently convicted of resisting a police officer and fined.

They say they never understood that the man asking to see their ID was actually a police officer, and asked the tribunal to rule on whether ethnic profiling played a part in their case.

In July 2016 the women were walking with a white, male friend in central Helsinki, speaking English and Finnish. When the male friend got into a taxi at the corner of Mikonkatu and Aleksanterinkatu, they were stopped by police.

"According to the women a scruffy-looking tattooed man in a t-shirt and shorts tapped one of them on the shoulder and and asked in English if he could see a passport," the tribunal said in its ruling.

At no point, said one woman, did she understand that the man was a police officer. She said she found the situation threatening and tried to walk away.

"After that the woman said she was grabbed by the man, who shoved her against a wall and once again ordered her to show her passport," read the tribunal verdict. "The woman felt the man was acting aggressively and tried to get away from the situation."

Women fined

A second plain clothes officer asked the other woman to show her passport, and according to the woman did not answer questions about why she should show it. She says she did not believe the man to be a police officer.

According to the women they were not told the grounds for the check, neither was it made clear at a later stage. The women believe that the police acted in a racist fashion and only stopped them because of their ethnic background.

Prosecutors had previously decided that the police should not face charges over the incident, but the women were fined in December 2017 for disobeying a police officer and refusing to follow a police officer’s orders.

The court ruled that the women had refused to show identity documents and pushed and swung at the officers.

In the mêlée one of the officers lost his badge, which had been hanging from his neck by a chain.

Police: Skin colour was one justification for check

Helsinki Police Department told the tribunal that the officers were part of a field surveillance unit, and they did not wear uniform while in the field. Their task that night was surveillance of suspected prostitutes and associated immigration status checks.

Police say that the officers had received intelligence that street prostitutes were operating in the area. When they noticed the women with a tall white man, they decided to follow the situation. When the man left, they decided to check the women’s documents.

Police justified the check saying that based on their experience, women with a foreign background practice street prostitution in that district especially in the evenings and early mornings. They denied discriminating against the women, but admitted that their actions were in part influenced by the fact that the women were black.

The tribunal noted that the police did not try to preform any checks regarding the white man the women were with. It ruled that police should not operate this way in future and set a conditional fine of 10,000 to be paid if they do.

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