Sunday 17 January 2010

Don't Look Suspicious On The Way To Work

Abandoned bag on the Jubilee Line at Stratford - photo: Andrew Wilkes

Over the last week, the police have been busy promoting the use of “behavioural science” to detect terrorist threats on the London underground, analysing passengers' body language and actions for suspicious behaviour to decide who to stop and search, as an positive alternative to racial profiling. The Evening Standard reported British Transport Police Chief Constable Andy Trotter saying:

“This is an objective assessment of people's behaviour rather than profiling who they are. The method takes away the blanket approach to stop and search and lets officers focus on people who may be of interest by looking at behaviour...

We do not profile, but in a mass transit situation we are dealing with a whole range of different people. The idea is to make our officers more targeted when they are confronted with masses of people.”

The idea of 'behavioural profiling' - called the Behavioural Analysis Screening System - has already been taken up by BAA, who are training specialist staff at Heathrow alongside the other, far more intrusive and controversial plans for full-body scanners at airports, which were trialled for use on the Underground but abandoned as impractical in 2008.

On the face of it, concentrating on behavioural patterns to identify potential suicide bombers seems like common sense, but it is also fraught with difficulty. Speaking as someone who has regularly had panic attacks travelling on the tube and avoids it whenever possible, I know that nervousness and discomfort are not necessarily signs of suspicious behaviour. It's also not that hard to spot people with 'the appearance of being drugged', especially during the morning commute and (for different reasons) on a Friday and Saturday evening. As for clutching a bag tightly, announcements are always been made about the need to 'beware of pickpockets' and who doesn't do so on the tube (especially on the farther flung parts of the Central line, it seems)?

Then, of course, there is the advice the police give, asking for the public to act as their eyes and ears. How likely is it that many Londoners will, at times of heightened tension, simply "trust their instincts and report suspicious behaviour" based on race: the kind of assumptions that lead to incidents like this?

All of this matters because the police in London spectacularly failed to use their supposedly keen sense of instinct or common sense when they 'profiled' Jean Charles de Menezes for acting 'suspiciously' - and look how that ended up. Why should we believe that they are now any better? Little had apparently changed in the training of police marksmen between July 2005 and the inquest into Jean's death in 2008. Moreover, the senior officer in command on the day that Jean was killed, Cressida Dick, notoriously told the inquest, "if you are asking me did we do anything wrong or unreasonable, then I don't think we did," but has still been repeatedly rewarded.

Furthermore, the police have made much of how this 'ground-breaking' tactic has been developed by the plucky Israelis, as though this confers some particular expertise and significance. But the reality is that there is nothing subtle about the Israeli approach to security: crude racial profiling is commonplace. Last March the Association for Civil Rights in Israel brought a legal challenge against racist treatment of Arab Israelis and in October, even the US State Department was complaining about the way that American citizens of Arab origin were treated at Israeli border crossings.

It strikes me that the publicity around 'behavioural profiling' seems more like an attempt to provide reassurance, to demonstrate that something is being done, whilst deliberately steering clear of the controversy over racial profiling that is almost certain to continue.

Meanwhile, if you travel on the tube regularly - and especially if you are black or Asian - it might be a good idea to break the habits of a lifetime. Start making eye contact with other passengers, take your hands out of your pockets, try to look like you are enthusiastic rather than half-dazed about the prospects of heading for work and make sure you have a proper seasonal wardrobe.

Most importantly of all, make absolutely sure you don't look nervous...

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