Equality Under Pressure: Challenging Ethnic Profiling by Dutch Police

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Amnesty Nederland

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.” 

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