The most recent example was on Friday when Melbourne radio identity Neil Mitchell mentioned this theme in relation to an attempted kidnapping in East Brighton. The police description of one of the perpetrators was:
The man is described as approximately 30-years-old, dark complexion, very white teeth, and short, curly black hair. He is approximately 190cm tall.
At Mitchell's further questioning, the detective being interviewed mentioned that the suspect was possibly African. Mitchell responds with, "Ah, so we're looking for a black person, are we? Because I know we're not allowed to say that, but it's important here, isn't it?"
Later Mitchell says, "It's silly, isn't it? It's so silly... they don't like the police describing ethnicity." He is critical of the official description given by police, because the term "dark complexion" could mean a whole variety of things.
Mr Money seems to style himself as The Age's resident conservative maverick, so predictably he goes on a tirade about how political correctness is overtaking our society. But about the description of the suspect, he seems to make a fair point. If the prime intention of releasing suspect descriptions to the public is so that someone may have seen something that will assist in the apprehension of the offender, then surely "short black hair" doesn't really cut it.
Sometimes the police do release descriptions which mention ethnicity, such as "Asian", "Caucasian", etc. But many times they do not.
Why not? Well, a comment left at the 3AW website (link above) with the Neil Mitchell interview, may give a clue:
this poor kid being attacked by what seems to be another black refugee we have aowed to live in our country.If m right he should be jailed and then sent back to where ever he came from.
alex Friday 26 February, 2010 - 4:42 PM
I wrote a previous post about the blinkered perceptions of ethnicity in crime; read it here.
Greg of Melbourne Posted at 2:50 PM September 15, 2009
Perhaps "Greg" and "Kim of minority race" have a point. "Tanned complexion" could mean a lot of things. A well-tanned Englishman, an Arab, a Pacific Islander, an Indian, a Latin American, a light-skinned black person, and so on. So it is of limited usefulness in helping to track down a criminal.
But here's the thing. As "Kim" says, a Caucasian is fairly easy to identify, most of the time. Most of us know a white person when we see one. When when we start talking about brown people though, it gets a bit more complicated.
When victims or witnesses identify a suspect, it is unlikely that they get a really good chance to study that person's face. If they are being attacked, or the incident happens at night, they won't have the best chance to get a real good look.
As I stated above, there are myriad different people who have tanned complexions, just as "dark-skinned" or "black" can describe a whole host of ethnicities. It's not always that easy for a witness to place a suspect neatly in a box like "African" or "Asian".
Now you may be thinking right about now, "Huh? Any fool can tell an African apart from a European, or an Asian."
Sometimes yes. Many people are immediately identifiable as fitting into a certain box. Many aren't, however.
Let's start with "black" people. Now, while many Africans are obviously African, there's still scope for confusion. A Melanesian (Papuan or Fijian, for example) might easily be taken as being African depending on how good a look the witness got, or whether they had much knowledge of what Melanesians look like. Similarly, think about famous people like Prince or Alicia Keys. If you saw them on the street and didn't know who they were, would "black" be the immediate description you would give? Maybe, but maybe not. Likewise, some people of South Asian origin can be mistaken for African. I knew a South Indian girl whose facial features had Ethiopians wondering if she was in fact one of them. I've seen plenty of young desi guys who with the addition of dreads or a shaved head could well be mistaken for African.
Now, let's be clear: I'm not trying to say that all black people look alike. Not at all. Just that there is so much variation in populations that some people look like something other than what they are. And all of this is subject to the ability of a witness to recognise what ethnic background someone belongs to; an ability which is very variable.
Moving away from "black", let's think about "Asian" as a descriptor. Again, there are some people who look completely Asian and will never be mistaken for anything else. But Asia is a big place.
From top (L-R):
Indonesian actor Tora Sudiro
New Zealand Maori actor Temuera Morrison
Peruvian footballer Nolberto Solano
Indian actor Aamir Khan
Romanian footballer Banel Nicolita (an ethnic Romani)
Algerian singer Khaled
Indigenous Australian Rules footballer Lance Franklin
Canadian musician Mocky (Italian and Somali background)
Below: "Black People". Well, sort of. Context, clothing, hair and other factors influence how we perceive the ethnicity of someone we see at a glance. What ethnicity first springs to mind when you look at these pictures? How useful would the description "black" be, if you were trying to describe them to police?