The result of the referendum on the prohibition of wearing an Islamic niqab or full-face veil in Switzerland, obscured an interesting piece of news about another federal plebiscite in this country which has gone almost completely unnoticed: The canton of Zurich voted on Sunday to state nationalities in police reports.
As reported in Swiss daily 20 Minutes, this vote was in fact a counter-proposal from the Swiss government to an initiative from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to include migration background.
The police in the canton have now been obliged to state the origin of the alleged perpetrators. Previously, this had been common practice in the German-speaking canton, which has a population of one and a half million, until a city council on the “Alternative List” banned the Zurich city police from doing so in 2017, following pressure from several left-wing parties.
The arguments of the supporters of the decision at the time and today’s opponents of the voting initiative were: The naming of nationalities stirs up racism and prejudice and divides society. The Zurich voters could not be convinced however, and instead they wanted clarity, transparency and information. After all, in Switzerland criminal suspects without a Swiss passport are clearly overrepresented in relation to their proportion of the population.
The majority of inmates in Swiss prisons are foreign nationals, according to official data. Of the 7 000 people imprisoned in Switzerland in January 2020, 70 percent were of foreign nationality.
More than 55 percent voted in favour of the proposal on Sunday according to the authorities. Only 44 percent approved the proposal by the Swiss People’s Party to include a mention of a possible immigration background, falling short of a necessary majority.
Zurich is the third of 26 Swiss cantons to introduce a special law over the past decade since cantons follow non-binding recommendations by the country’s police commanders approved in 2010 to mention the nationality of a suspect and victims as a rule besides their respective age. Exceptions are sometimes allowed for privacy reasons while information about a possible immigration background is only disclosed on request.
It is similar in Germany. In relation to serious violent and sexual crimes, foreigners are more often suspected of being the perpetrators than Germans. In most federal states, however, the nationality is not mentioned in the police reports. An investigation from the beginning of February showed: Only in Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is the nationality of suspects generally stated.
The negative consequences of the practice in the other federal states can be seen immediately after almost every publicly discussed crime: There is wild speculation on social networks as to where the alleged perpetrator comes from. “That was definitely a foreigner again,” most say, or: “Only Germans do that.” It is almost mandatory for journalists to ask the responsible police officer or to obtain the information somehow and eventually the origin of the suspect is made public.
This approach shows that there is a public interest in the nationality of suspects. The general mention of this information would also put an end to speculation. When criminologists speak of “pseudo-transparency” because there is usually no connection between the nationality of a suspect and his act, this may be true from a criminological point of view, but it does not change the desire of many Germans to know more than just the gender and age of a suspect. Also because the proportion of foreigners in Germany continues to grow.
However, in addition to nationality, another factor could be equally relevant. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in Zurich had tried (unsuccessfully) to make a possible migration background mandatory public knowledge through the police statement in addition to the nationality. “Only when you know the background are you in a position to correctly judge a situation”, SVP’s Zurich branch said on its website.
In Germany, the member of the Bundestag and former police chief commissioner Martin Hess (AfD) advocates precisely this. “Citizens across Germany must be informed about the nationality and migration background of suspects. This is the only way they can draw the right conclusions in the elections and force the politicians to make necessary changes to their course,” he urged, speaking to the Berlin weekly Junge Freiheit.
“Anyone who is against the naming of nationality in police reports only wants to cover up the fact that the policy of open borders makes our country much more insecure.” This contradicts the idea of the democratic public, he said.