Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"The suspect was described as having dark skin..."

I've noticed recently a few commentators in the Australian media bringing up the subject of the ethnicity of criminal suspects given in police descriptions. In other words, that the police are tip-toeing around mentioning the race of a suspect, to the point where it may interfere with the chances of apprehending them.

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.

A similar theme was recently expanded on in The Age by columnist Lawrence Money. Describing a case of a suspect who looks clearly to be of black African descent, he mocks the police description of him given to the public.

They also released a description that, over radio, sounded like this: ‘’about 180 cm tall, solid build and’’ – this is the clincher – ''short black hair’’. Can you believe it? ''Short black hair’’. How many million blokes in Australia would fit that profile? The fact that this bloke is coloured, a fact that would cut down the suspect pool by probably 95 per cent, is omitted. Are we so terrified of the R-word, racism, so brainwashed by the thought police, that no dares mention skin colour any more?

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
Ethnic descriptions can be used to justify all kinds of prejudices. Now I don't necessarily have a probblem with the concept of deporting criminals who are non-citizens. But if the suspect had been described as a blonde Caucasian, then there would be no way "Alex" would see his race as at all relevant. Certainly no suggestion that blonde white criminals be deported back to Europe or wherever else.

I wrote a previous post about the blinkered perceptions of ethnicity in crime; read it here.
As another example, here are two comments at the Herald Sun about a case of an assault and robbery at Berwick train station. The suspect was described as having a "tanned complexion".

Greg of Melbourne Posted at 2:50 PM September 15, 2009
Tanned complexion, huh? Are we being politically correct as usual, Herald Sun? Perhaps if the Herald Sun gave accurate descriptions of perpetrators instead of trying not to upset certain ethnic groups, the cops may have a better chance of catching said perpetrators?

Kim (of minority race) of melbourne Posted at 3:23 PM September 15, 2009
When you say "tanned complexion", why don't you be specific for the sake of more easily identifying the offender? You are quick to describe an offender as "caucasian" (white) but when it comes to a possible minority race, there is always this pussyfooting around the description.

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.

I recently was working with a group of young Burmese refugees, and their appearance spanned the gamut from classic East Asian features to South Asian or even Middle-Eastern features. There are many Southeast Asians, placed in a non-Asian setting, who would not look particularly Asian at all. I have a friend from Eastern Indonesia who visited the US and was surprised when everyone started trying to speak Spanish to him.

Likewise, Pacific Islanders exhibit a range of physical types; some could pass for black or Latin American, some look Southeast Asian, and some have Caucasian parentage. The gang captured on CCTV bashing Sourabh Sharma on a Melbourne train appeared to me to include Pacific Islanders and Caucasians; yet I saw at least one reference to it as being "a Vietnamese gang", based on that person's interpretation of one of the faces.

My point is that while ethnic descriptors of perpetrators can certainly be helpful, they are sometimes problematic, particularly in a society populated by a very wide range of people, including those of mixed ethnicity. Not all of us are good at distinguishing what racial group someone belongs to, and some people just look like something you wouldn't expect. And I suspect that in a great many cases, people only want to know the ethnicity of the perpetrator in order to confirm various theories of racial tendencies.

Below: some people "of tanned complexion". Beyond that vague descriptor, is it easy to apply an ethnic label to them based on appearance alone?

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?

From top (L-R):
Wendell Sailor, Australian rugby player. Torres Strait Islander.
Nic Naitanui, Australian rules footballer of Fijian background.
Supercat, Jamaican reggae artist (Indian heritage)
Kim Thayil, US musician (Soundgarden) of Indian (Malayali) heritage
Eamonn Walker, British actor of Grenadian/Trinidadian parentage
Yogi B, Malaysian Tamil rapper
Denilson Pereira Neves, black Brazilian footballer.
Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia.


  1. Good one. Good point. Yeah, it's not always easy to tell. And I don't get why people think that the police/media don't hesitate to identify Caucasians. I rarely see Caucasians identified. Usually when it's a white perpetrator, it's unmarked. Sometimes they do specify, and when they do, I notice coz I'm surprised. Do you see this tendency too, or am I not paying enough attention?

  2. Maybe police should include those IC0-IC6 codes that UK police use (as heard on "The Bill" etc) in every press release. That way they don't actually have to name an ethnicity. Might be easier with a cold, utterly dispassionate euphemism to use:

    The public could learn them in a jiffy. Of course, this doesn't help with categorisation errors in the slightest.

    Love your blog btw.

  3. @ fromthetropics: I'm not sure Caucasians are identified less than anyone else, it's hard to tell really unless you do a really comprehensive survey. But I can envisage that since they are seen as the "default", then their race might be assumed and not specifically mentioned.
    Interestingly, most of the commenters on Andrew Bolt's blog seem to think that anytime racial appearance is not mentioned, then it must been it was an "ethnic", since they think the media have a conspiracy to under-report ethnic crime.

    @ Anonymous: yes, I learned that from "The Bill" as well!

  4. One thing I noticed in our newspapers and articles and stuff is that when race is not mentioned at all, its a white person, but if a black person did it, they will mention his race...and if they know who did it, then they will put a picture up.

    I remember when this Jihad Jane stuff was going around, a website failed to put her picture up and whites were saying it must have been a black person...and I am like, they obviously don't pay much attention to the articles because they always mention a black person's race or have a picture of them up immediately.

  5. Great post how dark is dark are talking dark as Dev Patel or dark as Wesley Snipes. I remeber a class mates in my media studies class was doing the same thing when describing an actor in some unknown film and he said the actor is dark skinned. Well dark skinned comapred to who?? lol

  6. I just came across your blog and really enjoyed this post. I'm a reporter in Canada and the problem you bring up here is the same in my country. I struggle when it comes to writing suspect descriptions if they are "dark skinned". We have become too cautious about how words are used which in most cases is a good thing but in situations like reporting on a suspect, it really can help to find the person faster if it is a direct description. I often worry a bit of how I might be perceived in my community if I use the word black but it is a complete description, if the suspect was white I'd put that in.

  7. @ Rinna:
    thanks for stopping by. If you have an interest in this topic there are another couple of similar posts on the issue of identifying ethnicity in crime: