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The Scale of Police Violence Against Racial Minorities in Europe

New data shows how police violence is the “norm” against ethnic minorities and foreign nationals in the EU

Riot police face off against protestors in Athens, Greece in 2019. Photo: Nicolas Koutsokostas/Alamy

The Scale of Police Violence Against Racial Minorities in Europe

New data shows how police violence is the “norm” against ethnic minorities and foreign nationals in the EU

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People from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by police violence across the European Union, with as many as four-fifths of those experiencing or witnessing physical and verbal aggression from police being foreign nationals or of an immigration background.

A report by Fair Trials examines the methodology of a pilot study in Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania that sought to record equality data to analyse discrimination in the criminal justice system across the EU.

It found that the majority of the 2,571 interviewed who had experienced police violence across the four countries were racialised people and that people experienced negative interactions with the criminal justice system based on their ethnicity, race or other ‘foreign’ perceived status. This spanned from the moment of arrest through to sentencing. 

The research comes after increased focus on police violence against black and ethnic minority people, following numerous killings of black men and women in the US by police officers. It demonstrates the importance of collecting equality data when it comes to measuring racism within the criminal justice system and society more widely. 

Laure Baudrihaye-Gérard, Fair Trials’ European legal director, said: “The collection of equality data provides additional evidence of structural discrimination and racism throughout criminal justice systems across Europe. It supports a wealth of research by civil society and reports by impacted people. But collecting evidence cannot be an end in itself. It cannot either further delay policy reform”.

Police Violence in Europe

The data focused on four countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, where police violence is disproportionately focused on racialised communities. 

Greece has been repeatedly headlines for police violence, particularly in the Exarcheia district of Athens. The area, known for its anarchist and left-wing political activism, was where teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos was killed by a police officer in 2008. A memorial mural to the 15-year-old can be found in the district. 

Eleven years after his death, in 2019, police raided the district, leading to 143 arrests – the majority of the detained were migrant people. Most of those arrested came from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq and many did not have official papers. 

Alexis Grigoropoulos memorial in Athens, Greece. Photo Sian Norris

According to Fair Trials’ research, 50% of those interviewed reported they had experienced or witnessed police violence – and 82% of people who had experienced that violence were of a nationality other than Greek. Migrant people also faced barriers post-arrest – with Albanian and Iranian people less likely to be informed of their legal rights than their Greek peers. 

The levels of police violence against racialised people in Belgium, Bulgaria and Romania were also concerningly high.

Police violence was described by one offender as “the norm for years” in Belgium, where 29.5% of interviewees were subject to physical violence during arrest. People of African descent were found to be twice as likely to experience violence than people of Western European origin. 

He described “blows when you’re handcuffed, arrests where they pin you to the ground and the police officer puts his foot on your throat to immobilise you even if you’re calm… violence is commonplace now, and more than that, it’s never punishable for those guys”. 

In Bulgaria, double the number of Roma people were subjected to police violence than white people (the overall number who experienced or observed police violence was 32%). A similar pattern was observed in Romania. While only 15% of white Romanians witnessed or experienced police violence, the share was higher for the Roma population –  at 27%.

“The police station chief beat me and had threatened me for a long time that he would put me in jail,” one interviewee from Romania told the researchers. “He was giving people fines and calling me to sign these fines, and when I refused to do so, he told me he would put me in jail. He wrongfully arrested me for a crime I didn’t commit.”

Police Violence in the UK

The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in America in 2020 provoked outrage across the world, shining a light on racialised policy brutality in the UK. 

A total of 1,833 people have died in police custody or following police contact in England and Wales since 1990, with black people twice as likely to die than white people.

Most recently, Chris Kaba was shot while being pursued by police officers in London. 

The Chris Kaba Shooting and the ShockingReality of Armed Policing in Modern Britain

Iain Overton

According to figures from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), while black people make up 3% of the UK’s population, they accounted for 8% of the deaths in police custody in the past decade. Between 2020 and 2021, 10% of people who died during or following police contact in the UK were black, according to the IOPC. 

Between 2020 and 2022 in England and Wales, there were 7,670 times where armed police pointed their guns at a subject but didn’t fire, of which one in four incidents, (1,933), involved a black person. In the Metropolitan Police, this figure rose to 48% in 2021. 

“We urgently need action to end police violence and tackle racism, and it’s vital that impacted people are at the front and centre of these reforms,” added Baudrihaye-Gérard.

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