After new allegations, Indigenous legal expert says racial profiling by police is still 'very common'

Hannah McGlade - NATSILS executive officer and expert member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues - says racial profiling by police remains an issue in Australia.

Dr Hannah McGlade, NATSILS CEO

Dr Hannah McGlade has been fighting for Aboriginal justice for three decades. Source: Sarah Collard

The head of the peak body for Indigenous legal services in Australia believes not enough is being done to fully eradicate racism and unconscious bias within police, after were uncovered. 

Internal documents obtained by SBS News under freedom of information laws show a senior constable within WA Police Force was in 2017 accused of racially profiling Aboriginal, Indian and Pakistani drivers when conducting roadside drug tests.

An internal investigation was launched after a complaint was made about the officer, who appeared to be targeting drivers on the basis of race.

The police investigator probing the accusations was "unable to establish the exact circumstances" behind the alleged incident – but they couldn’t disprove it.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services executive officer Hannah McGlade said she wasn’t surprised by the allegations, as racial profiling by police remains “very common” across the country.

“It's something that all Aboriginal people report across the country, and I don’t think there has been a concerted effort to actually deal with racism in Australia and in police forces,” the Noongar woman told SBS News.

Dr McGlade - who is also an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues - said while racial profiling can be harder to prove than other forms of race discrimination and exists in a “bit of a grey area”, it is still a form of discrimination.

“There are issues about proof and tackling it, but that doesn't make it any less serious,” she said.

“Racial profiling can have effects that are severe and it is leading to high levels of Aboriginal people being apprehended.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to be jailed at much higher rates than the general community. 

released this month showed the national Indigenous imprisonment rate was 2,333 persons per 100,000 adults in the 2020 December quarter, compared to 208 per 100,000 for the general public.

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Meena Singh said the use of racial profiling by police is “not only discriminatory, but counterproductive”.

“Studies have shown that police are more likely to properly identify criminals if they rely on intelligence, information or specific behaviour rather than using racial stereotypes that impact marginalised communities the most, including Aboriginal people,” she said.

“There should be zero tolerance of any racism or racial profiling, and any evidence that suggests its practice should be acted upon immediately.”


WA Police Force did not respond to specific questions from SBS News about the racial profiling allegations, but a spokesperson said the force treats “all complaints against its members seriously, and conducts thorough investigations of such matters with independent oversight by the Corruption and Crime Commission”.

They also said a “number of strategies” have also been introduced to improve relationships with WA’s Aboriginal community in recent years, including the development of a reconciliation action plan, the establishment of the Aboriginal Affairs Division and cultural awareness training for all personnel.

Dr McGlade said bias still appeared to exist within Australia's police. 

“All cultural awareness is positive and important, but it's not effective in terms of addressing actual racism which is very, very real and experienced by Aboriginal people,” she said.

“We need to have a much more sophisticated response to racism in this country than is currently happening. We need to invest in addressing the problem through research, through policy, through law, through institutional and systemic structural change that's going to require more political will and commitment.”

4 min read
Published 31 March 2021 at 8:27am
By Evan Young