Equality Under Pressure: Challenging Ethnic Profiling by Dutch Police

I think it is really important for people to realize that these are not one-time incidents. When you are a person of color, if I can just say it really crudely, you have these kinds of experiences a lot.

Sidney Mutueel is a chief inspector in the Dutch police. He has been a police officer for over twenty three years. Yet when he is off duty, he gets stopped and checked by the police. Why? Because he is black. “I get stopped by my own colleagues, and I am approached in a really impertinent, unfriendly way, and that has an effect on me,” he says. Several of these stops have taken place in front of his children: “If I told the real story, how I felt right then, what will that do to my children, and how they feel about it?  And it’s not only this, just my children; what kind of message does it send to society?”

Sidney’s story is told in a new report by the Open Society Justice Initiative and Amnesty International Netherlands that looks at the human costs of ethnic profiling. Many Dutch people from visible minority backgrounds feel that they are being singled out by the police not because of something they have done, but because of the way they look: singled out to be stopped, or checked, or searched. 

Equality Under Pressure: The Impact of Ethnic Profiling features 10 Dutch people—two of them police officers—talking about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of stops and searches.

“For people who are not aware of it, they think, oh come on, what are you making such a fuss about?” says Prasand, a technical administrator from Amsterdam. “I think it is really important for people to realize that these are not one-time incidents. When you are a person of color, if I can just say it really crudely, you have these kinds of experiences a lot.”

The last decade has seen as expansion of ID checks by the police, and the use of preventative search powers in the Netherlands. But this has not been matched with the development of adequate oversight systems to regulate these powers. There is no systematic monitoring; there are no quantitative data on who is getting stopped and searched, or on the reasons why, or on the results of these stops. This has left the police with broad discretionary powers without accountability: providing no checks on potentially abusive and discriminatory behavior.

Last month, Amnesty International Netherlands published a report on proactive police controls—ID checks, traffic controls, preventive searching, and immigration stops—and found that ethnic profiling is taking place beyond the level of isolated incidents. 

The lack of police data on stops makes it difficult to determine the precise extent of ethnic profiling. Some use this lack of information to argue in public that the problem does not exist. Fortunately the police and authorities have recently taken a significant step forwards, by publicly acknowledging that ethnic profiling can occur and is wrong. At a meeting on ethnic profiling in October 2013, Gerard Bouman, Chief of the National Police Force, stated that “selecting people on ethnic criteria is legally and morally utterly reprehensible.”

Amnesty’s earlier report sparked a very emotional debate in the Netherlands over whether or not the prevalence of ethnic profiling should lead to the conclusion that Dutch police officers are racist. This kind of debate about how to define ingrained attitudes is perhaps less useful than trying to change how the police act in practice. It’s true that ethnic profiling can be the result of the racist attitudes of some police officers. But ethnic profiling is also the outcome of general policies and broader decisions about how and where to use ID checks, stops, and searches.

So far there has been little attention to the impact of ethnic profiling. In the testimonies in this report, those on the receiving end describe feelings of embarrassment and fear at being stopped on the street in front of passersby often without an explanation for the stop. Survey data demonstrates lower levels of trust amongst those who have experienced stops, particularly those from minority communities. The result can be less cooperation, a harder job for the police and reduced public safety for everybody.

The need for action is underlined by the stories presented in our report. Abulhassan, a philosophy student from Rotterdam, warns of the consequences if ethnic profiling remains unaddressed: “You don’t create a safe society if you are going to go up to non-threatening people and search them. And there is another really important point: If you systematically discriminate against people, you will end up with a society of people who are not loyal to the society they live in, and actually this is more than logical since this society doesn’t accept them at all.”

Ethnic profiling undermines the Dutch ideals of equal treatment and non-discrimination enshrined in the constitution. Experiences of unfair police treatment not only create mistrust in the police but also contribute to a wider sense of being rejected. Anass, a technology student from Gouda, explains: “It’s not good that they pick me out just because I’m Moroccan. In a lot of situations, this can create aggression or even depression. You suddenly start to realize that you are not welcome here at all.” 

17 Comments

Sounds like New York if you're walking or driving while black or LA if your're walking or driving while Latino.

Judging a person by their looks is like trying to guess what a lolly is going to taste like by the piece of paper it is wrapped in; I can never be racist as I judge each person by their actions not who they are or how they look.

The problem with etnic profiling is that it is based on common sense. Cops shouldnt just trust only their common sense when they're patroling the city. I mean when you see six moroccan guys with hoodies on hanging about in a shopping mall while most people work or study it is not right to assume these guys are up to no good. It could be that they just met for buying presents for a wedding. To be suspicious right away is ludicrous. The other problem is statistics. Cops are confronted with crime statistics and they are unfluenced by them. In the Netherlands, most violent street crime is commited by Moroccans between their 12 and 28th these so called statistics say. So our cops are negatively influenced by them. Of course their daily work influence them too. I think we should abolish having those statistics in the first place. It's just plain racist.

I don't think abolishing these statistics would be a good thing. As one of the guys interviewed said: 'the police assumes I'm like most other Maroccans'.
(negative) Stereotypes are often based on some kind of truth, and it is in some way common sense to act upon them. I think the task lies with the officers themselves, they have to keep in mind the statistics while they also have to remain neutral and unbiased.

Statistics ? Interesting ! If you've ever been into a sex offender prison or looked at the statistics of "serial" killers it is approximately 99% caucasians. Therefore. syllogistically since stereotypes have some sort of truth, all caucasians stopped as searched for child porn, interrogated about their last pedophiliac encounter and the police should also ask where they hid the body of their last kill. Statistics are good, but police everywhere needs to be trained more ! Nonetheless, from our daily relationships we never know. Some people just have dark secrets that are never visible to the naked eye. Lastly, it is offensive to violates someone's person and expect them not to take it personally, that is " remain neutral and unbiased.)

When will we ever learn, when will it ever change?

Yes it is racist to have statistics.We should close our eyes and the problem will be gone.

It's not that simple, as you hopefully know. First of all, it works both ways, like some of these men say: if you are repeatedly cornered by the police for no reason, you might be inclined to do bad things. Or at least, not feel loyal or friendly towards the police. Secondly, minorities are punished faster and more severly than the 'white' population. And so there are many more reasons to not just blindly trusts statistics, especially as they are partly the result of ethnic profiling.

This way of working by the police is only the tip of an iceberg you could call the racial division of the Netherlands. For example in the southern part of the province of Limburg only 8% is from a non-Dutch ancestry, but 30% of the long term unemployed are of non-Dutch ancestry. And off course it is not only caused by ethnic profiling, many of these long-term unemployed came to the Netherlands and did back braking work and are now unable to work. But 30% is a big difference from 8%.

But what we also should not forget is that in times of trouble and financial problems humans start to get stressed and fall back on their often bad working common sense. But where following your common sense as a citizen is not the best policy, for the police it is even the worst policy. It means that those who want to do harm just need to make sure that they are above suspicion. The next thing you end up with is a society in which no one can be trusted, because everybody could be a criminal. So police officers should use there common sense as a warning sign to be vigilant, not as a reason to act. And if you do not want to work that way, maybe you are in the wrong job. Because as a Dutch citizen I am not paying my police officers to find terrorists by arresting everybody who might look like a terrorist. I am paying them to keep me safe, by catching the real terrorist in a group of people who look like terrorists. That has a much bigger preventive impact, because terrorists will think twice of maybe even four times before they try an attack on the Dutch society, because they know the Dutch police is the best at catching the right persons. That is the kind of police force I would be proud of being a Dutch citizen.

So, this obviously sucks. But let me ask an inpopular question. If certain groups within society are strongly over represented in crime statistics and these groups can be visibly identified, doesn't it then make sense that these groups have to deal with closer scrutiny? I'm just wondering where the line lies between political correctness and practical reality

The fact that certain groups are over –represented in crime stats may reflect disproportionate rates of offending but it may also reflect the outcome of police practices. The belief that minority groups are disproportionately involved in crime becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the police look for drugs and criminality amongst minorities, they will find drugs and crime disproportionately amongst these groups. This will mean more minority people are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and jailed, thus reinforcing the idea that ethnic minorities are disproportionately involved in crimes, resulting in continued justification for increased stops and surveillance of minorities as a rational way of catching more criminals.

The consequence of this so called “practical rational” approach is a waste of police resources and less security for us all. With around 11% of the Dutch population being of visible ethnic minority backgrounds that will be around 1.9 million people of which we are expecting the police to target. The vast majority of this number will be completely innocent but will be subject to proactive policing – the outcome of which, the report shows, can be hurt, embarrassment and alienation. The costs to wider society can include the perpetuation of stereotypes, exaggerated levels of fear and division. And while the police are busy targeting whole ethnic groups they risk missing the actual criminals that may belong to majority populations or not fit the profile and so escape police attention.

The best approach is for the police to target proactive policing tools such as stops and searches on the basis of suspicious behaviour and objective information and intelligence and through building cooperative strong relationships with all communities. The police should be required to demonstrate that the law enforcement tools they are using are effective at tackling crime without undermining civil liberties.

For the police to address ethnic profiling and demonstrate that they are using their stop and search power effectively, they must systematically record who they stop, why and the outcome. This is common practice in the UK and the US and there are stop recording pilots in Spain and Austria. It can be done without increasing the bureaucracy for the police while providing greater accountability for the person stopped. Where stop and search is systematically recorded the data has consistently shown that minority groups are arrested (or contraband found) at equal or lower rates than white majority populations. Ethnic profiling of minority groups therefore appears to do little to target crime or improve police efficiency.

Rebekah Delsol
Open Society Justice Initiative

You have to ask the question of cause and effect though: if you are constantly discriminated against by both the authorities and your fellow citizens, and if you know this will continue as you enter the job market (statistics also show that job candidates with foreign sounding names are far more likely to be rejected on the basis of their written application, than their Dutch-sounding competitors with exactly the same qualifications and experience), what's your incentive to make a meaningful contribution to society or treat others with respect?

Also, I don't know whether similar studies have been done in the Netherlands, but a study in Belgium found that when you look at crime rates per socio-economic class, the rates for ethnic Belgians and other groups are the same: people - mostly young men - from poorer backgrounds and with lower education commit the vast majority of crimes, and the reason the rates are high for certain ethnic groups is that they are over-represented in the lower socio-economic classes in society.

Most people - regardless of background - are unlikely to get significantly higher education than their parents. Parents with lower education are less likely to motivate their children to aim higher, and less able to help with homework etc. Couple that with the knowledge that you will be discriminated against in the job market - see above - and there is again little motivations to try and do better.

The point I was trying to make was: for all those who are saying crime statistics are a good enough reason for the police to behave in this way, there is more than one way to look at the statistics, and you have to wonder to what degree the attitudes of both the authorities and society at large aren't contributing to those statistics.

And that aside: nothing excuses this kind of behaviour by the police. It's not just about the disproportionate attention paid to young men of colour, it's the utterly disrespectful way in which they are treated.

Let's face some truth about Dutchies. They misinterprete a lot of their own cliches. Being tolerant means indifference. Being direct equals rude attitudes and having acted inappropriate. They never stop commenting on the things they have no idea about. Typically, despite living together with minorities ask 100 random Dutch, they can not tell you difference among Turks and Moroccans. Ethnic profiling is a fundamental issue and a struggle of changing hence blending Dutch society. We all know and those policemen too, that they know or can guess who is violating social order and who do not but they bother people just to disturb them and remind them that they are not welcome here... Fin

Unbelievable, in the 2013 still this ignorance about skin colors and ethnics, shame on dutchies. I completely agree with Orhan, well said man!

Sounds like Russia if you are not white you get checked...so Dutch, relax your situation is not special, discrimination and racism is global!!! The world sucks!

The irony of this is, the Dutch believe that they are not racists. They have managed to fool the International community that there country accepts everyone. The fact is that the Dutch are very contemptuous and look down on others. my heart goes to many talented immigrants who fled to The Netherlands, but the system keep them down and they are forced to live in a precarious condition. The system allows Dutch people to put foreigners down and makes it difficult for them to thrive. If there's a place where the system creates hatred, and bad heart for others, it is in The Netherlands. Many Dutch people are aloof and think they are superior! Shame on the racists and hypocites in the Dutch society.

Add your voice