Switzerland: Should a suspect’s ethnicity be made public by police?

Switzerland: Should a suspect's ethnicity be made public by police?
Nationality of foreign offenders in Zurich may have to be divulged. Photo by Nathalie OLOF-ORS / AFP
This question, while not new in Switzerland, stirs heated debates in Zurich, where voters will decide whether the origin of suspected criminal - including their 'migration background' - must be divulged.

On March 7th, voters in the canton of Zurich will go to the polls to decide whether or not the ethnicity and/or the nationality of foreigners accused of crimes can be made public. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is being considered? 

The practice of disclosing the nationality of a suspect has become widespread in Switzerland, where most police forces make this information public, along with age or gender.

Zurich has however been an exception since police chief Richard Wolff decided in 2017 that the authorities would no longer routinely mention a person’s nationality, except at the request of journalists.

But in May 2018, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) submitted the popular initiative calling for the origin of the alleged perpetrators and victims to be given in media releases by the police, including their ethnicity or ‘migration background’.

“Only when you know the background are you in a position to correctly judge a situation”, SVP’s Zurich branch said on its website.

It added that “for Switzerland in particular, with its diverse democratic rights of participation, it is essential that the authorities provide open information on all issues”.

Cantonal government submitted a counter-proposal under which only the nationality would be disclosed in police reports, but not — as the initiative demands — the migration background.

READ MORE: Will foreigners in Switzerland finally earn the right to vote in federal elections?

What do the political parties say?

All political parties have also spoken against the SVP proposal, arguing that the naming of nationalities stirs up resentment towards foreigners.

The Liberals “advocate open and transparent communication on the part of the police, but is not in favour of introducing different categories of residents”, the party said on its website. 

The Social Democrats in Zurich noted that “mentioning nationality does not prevent crimes, it does not create security and does not solve the problems of why crimes are committed. Rather, it would harm the public”.

The majority of inmates in Swiss prisons are foreign nationals, official statistics show.

Numbers from January 2020, the most recent ones available, indicate that the proportion of foreigners in prison was the lowest in 15 years: of the 7,000 people imprisoned in Switzerland 70 percent were of foreign nationality.

EXPLAINED: What is at stake in Switzerland’s March 7th referendums? 

How do police feel about the issue? 

Police are opposed to releasing ethnicity information about suspects, saying it would create two categories of Swiss people. 

“We’d have to set up a kind of genealogy department in the police,” Zurich genealogy director Mario Fehr told Swiss news outlet Watson

Fehr said there was no guidance as yet provided by the SVP on what type of ‘migration background’ information should be released publicly, or whether the background of ‘ethnic Swiss’ should be released. 


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