Research: Policing in the Netherlands – Ethnic Profiling and ‘Debureaucratization’

Paul Mutsaers (born 1984) is a researcher in the Department of Culture Studies at the Tilburg School of Humanities and at the Police Academy of the Netherlands. In recent years he conducted an anthropological study of Dutch police behavior towards immigrants. Yesterday he defended his PhD at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Employed by the Police Academy of the Netherlands, between 2008 and 2013 he joined numerous street patrols and had hundreds of conversations with officers from various ethnic backgrounds about their experiences within the force and about police work in superdiverse communities throughout the country. In his thesis, entitled A Public Anthropology of Policing: Law Enforcement and Migrants in the Netherlands, he describes both internal and external discrimination: against fellow officers as well as against members of the public. For example, he found that homeless immigrants –legal and illegal – are relatively often victims of police discrimination.

Less bureaucracy and a greater emphasis upon the individual officer’s own personality and discretionary authority have made the Dutch police highly prone to discrimination against ethnic minorities and to arbitrary behavior.” So says researcher Paul Mutsaers of Tilburg University, who is calling for the “reassessment” of bureaucracy in policing, with clear authority and accountability structures and the strict separation of person and office. He recommends that police be required to complete a so-called “stop form” every time they make an arrest, to establish whether or not it was the result of ethnic profiling. “And every municipality should have a civilian review board’l, as a democratic counterweight monitoring police work.

For some time now, the Dutch police service has been undergoing a process of “debureaucratization”: less paperwork, fewer regulations and less mandatory accountability and greater “professional freedom”. According to Mutsaers, this has resulted in officers acting les like public servants performing a community duty. He claims that policing is now dominated by a culture in which officers are encouraged to act according to their own views of the world – their own views of justice and fairness. In his dissertation he describes how this blurring of the boundaries between personal views and public duty easily leads to subjectivity and discrimination. “If an officer misbehaves,” he explains, “the problem is reduced to some personal psychological issue and he is simply sent off for awareness training.”

Infiltration into private lives

As Mutsaers sees it, one “excess” produced by this organizational culture is the project known as PsyCops. This is modelled on the tactics used to manipulate and win the “hearts and minds” of the local populace in war zones. In Amsterdam West, troops have actually helped police officers in observing and understanding the standards, values, religious beliefs, family ties and political views of so-called “problem groups” – that is, immigrants. “Such infiltration into the private lives of Dutch citizens conflicts with the values of a free and democratic society,” says Mutsaers. He believes that his proposed civilian review boards would counter such practices.

Moreover, he claims, the policing culture and the underlying policy are influencing crime statistics. “These are being ‘colored’ by the choices and actions of the officers on the ground. Take roadblocks, for example, where members of ethnic minorities are disproportionally subjected to scrutiny. People with a non-Western background are overrepresented in the figures.” With such a statistical pretext in hand, it is easy for minorities to fall victim to police power. And to create a climate in which far-reaching legislative measures can be proposed, like criminalizing illegal stay on Dutch soil or withdrawing Dutch passports.

Time to address police discrimination

According to Mutsaers, the time has come to address police discrimination as a deep-rooted institutional problem. In 2013, national Commissioner of Police Gerard Bouman dismissed an Amnesty International report about ethnic discrimination by his force as talking about “just incidents”. But earlier this year, in his own blog, he pointed to an internal culture in which Muslim officers are systematically excluded, mocked and disrespected. This of course also affects Muslim citizens. This April, Mutsaers was invited to attend a so-called Top 61 meeting to discuss his findings with Bouman and his most senior officers at a national level. He used this opportunity to encourage the force to reflect on its personnel policy, organizational structures and leadership styles.

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