When Paul Mutsaers was about six years old, he saw people with mohawks and piercings at the pop venue ‘Noorderlicht’ in Tilburg. They were smoking joints and sipping beer. But they could never just sit there quietly, because police demanded to see their papers or shooed them away. Mutsaers didn’t understand why and only saw total injustice. Years later, in June 2015, he got his degree on police discrimination in the Netherlands, writing a dissertation on A Public Anthropology of Policing: Law enforcement and migrants in the Netherlands. In this thesis he shows that Dutch police officers have been given too much freedom of action, which makes it much more likely for them to discriminate against ethnic minorities.
His dissertation didn’t go unnoticed. Suddenly, citizens could criticize the police by means of substantiated accusations, politicians called for measures, scientists did (affirmative) follow-up research and Mutsaers was asked to appear as a guest in the media. Meanwhile, the police were observing all of this with dismay. Should they respond to this survey or better not? A notorious convulsion was the manner in which the Tilburg police reacted to the message that they were to start using so-called ‘stop forms’. In order to get a view of the real ongoing discrimination by the police, the officers were to make a record of every arrest, noting down the reason of that particular arrest as well as the ethnicity of the citizen. But once Univers and other media got wind of this plan, the police took the press release about the use of stop forms offline. Subsequently, the National Police announced that all stop form plans were abandoned. Thirty minutes later, the Zealand-West Brabant police denied that there had been any such plans at all.
“They see the police as a security threat, rather than as a partner”
Meanwhile, the true message of Mutsaers’ thesis remained firmly in place. Cause for concern, as the 55,000 to 60,000 agents who act on a daily basis, actually provoke a change in people’s attitudes towards our society. Somalis from Tilburg North, for instance, no longer report with the police and refuse to act as witnesses. Mutsaers: “They see the police as being more of a security risk than a partner.”
Why did the police check out certain ethnic groups more than others?
“The most frequent argument is efficiency. But that one is very easy to tackle. You’ll only be able to get an accurate picture of crime when you select randomly. By focusing on Moroccans, for example, you’ll spend a huge part of your capacity on only a small group of people. You’ll lose sight of other groups. That is not efficient at all, and even blatantly unjust as it is unconstitutional.”
Don’t the police have good reasons to act this way? Moroccans, for instance, are definitely over-represented in crime statistics.
“Those figures are never objective. At all stages of the criminal law chain, policy choices are decisive. Take probation officers. They are working with risk assessment techniques and categories. A category is the country of birth, for example, which is used to determine whether a person may be conditionally released. Hence ethnicity has been institutionalized as a contributory factor in a criminal trial. In this case, you can’t say that those statistics are neutral.”
“Traffic controls are done quite differently in Hilvarenbeek than in Tilburg North”
What did you do when you were working with the police?
“Participating observation. In the back of the car, during interrogations, at road blocks and house searches. And then you see that traffic controls in Hilvarenbeek are done quite differently than those in Tilburg North. In Hilvarenbeek officers were frequently joking around with civilians in an amiable way. In Tilburg however, they came down rather hard on them. These are just indications. What we really need is a large-scale statistical research. The police still refuse to go along with this, but maybe that’ll change. ”
Then why did they let you accompany them?
“During my research I was employed by the police academy, so I was considered to be ‘one of them’. In addition, they do take the issue seriously. But if you conduct qualitative research, they can quickly dismiss it as just a story. When confronted with hard data from quantitative research, it all becomes different.”
Yet they were not able to easily dismiss your research. There was a lot of public interest.
“Many newspapers contacted me. There were strong words in the press release about my thesis, words as roadblock. That’s just another word for traffic control, but it sounds a lot heavier. Like it comes straight out of a violent American TV series. Pretty soon a spokesman from the national police called me. He asked if it couldn’t be bit more nuanced. And how I came to those terms. These are your terms, I said. The interesting thing about anthropological research is that you are relying on statements from the people themselves. Via informal channels I even heard that a lawsuit against me was being considered. And I got some nasty emails.”
Was it threatening to you?
“Not really. Especially that phone call was very diplomatic. The trick is to always remain seated in your academic chair. To say: these are my data, I analyzed them, I refer to hundreds of other sources at home and abroad that also speak of police discrimination. We are dealing with a larger problem here. I was, however, totally surprised by all of this. Obviously there is a huge difference between the internal and external police communication. I once spoke at a leadership meeting. Loud applause. They were very excited and told me: well done, we’ll definitely be able to work with this. But after publication, the official response was that they’d found it very hard to appreciate my findings.”
At some point you realized: all this attention and criticism is scientifically interesting as well.
“It’s an extension of your work. You publish data, present them, there will be a reaction and that reaction provides new data in turn. Insights into how the police deal with the problem, for instance. However, by then it has become more personal and confronting. By uncovering an organization, you create productive discomfort. Productive, because you allow different parties, such as the police, science, politics and citizens, to actively reflect. That’s a good thing for the democratic process.”
“By uncovering an organization, you create productive discomfort”
And uncomfortable, because you became target of criticism yourself. According to the police, you’re an ‘asshole’?
“I think I’m an asshole to them, because I show an image they don’t appreciate at all. The term was coined by the American police scientist John van Maanen. The ‘asshole’ is someone who doesn’t automatically accept the definition of the situation as given by the police. And that refusal to accept their definition is in turn unacceptable to the police. On the streets they are always the ones who define what happens.”
The police discriminate. That problem has increased because the police have become less bureaucratic. But less bureaucracy is actually considered to be a good thing, isn’t it?
“Not at all. Under the guise of so-called new public management all kinds of ideas have been adopted from the business world. But an enforcement institution such as the police is no commercial company. Moreover, this lesser bureaucracy is not so much to be found in less paperwork or deregulation. But people seem to think that is exactly what de-bureaucratization is and that can be very prohibitive indeed. What I mean is a clear hierarchy in decision-making and responsibility.
“The police commissioner is being watched from all sides, but no one sees what the street cop does”
That’s where it gets difficult with the police: the lower in the hierarchy you are, the more freedom (discretionary space) you have. The commissioner is being watched from all sides, while no one sees what the street cop does. That’s a problem because almost every foreign study shows: the larger the discretionary space, the greater the risk of discrimination.”
So officers are invisible. But at the same time they have become very important?
“There is no clear separation left between ‘private’ and ‘official’. It is said to officers: you can only be a legitimate police officer, if you are authentic. When you stay true to yourself. Not if you’re hiding behind roles or standard procedures. It is said, the stereotypes you have or use make you the person that you are and your individuality matters. They are all much more concerned with who you are than with what you can and do. Why is this happening? Citizen satisfaction. The idea is that people want an empathic police officer, one who can project and envisage himself into the particular situation.”
Police officers are even instructed to work with stereotypes?
“The police have an active target group policy. It is said: Today we are going to expel Eastern Europeans from the city center, because there’s too much pick-pocketing going on. Even though the actual authorization to do this is missing. Hence officers have great freedom of action, and by means of the instructions they receive, you make sure that freedom becomes colored.”
You’re calling for more bureaucracy. That’s not a very sexy story. What would that look like anyway?
“Stop forms can be introduced in order to limit an officer’s freedom of interpretation. A stop form should contain records of the reason for arrest as well as the ethnicity of those arrested. If an officer disproportionately arrests ethnic minorities, you may address the issue with that cop. You could also implement civil councils. At this moment, citizens complaining about the police will eventually end up within that same police institution. That is a problem. And we should move away from the continuous psychologizing of the problem. The police chief said that my research only reflects incidents, and that the solution would be to send these individual officers to awareness training. But that way you’ll only make the problem worse. And yes, of course bureaucracy can be scary. For it is only as good or bad as the regime that stands at the top. But sensible people should at least be able to think about it.”
“Anthropology makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar”
By the way, why is anthropology so attractive to you?
“Anthropology makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. I want to show that those things that are generally taken for granted here, are indeed not so logical at all. Police anthropology is a new field. For a long time, anthropology did not dare to take a look at the powerful, the rulers. There has been much research on people who became the subject of police attention, but very little on the police themselves. I find that a hard thing when I’m asked about ethnic profiling. Because then it’s once more all about the target groups of the police, while we should actually provide much more clarity about what the police force looks like on the inside. We have forgotten how to be amazed about what is happening there. ”
For his PhD, Paul Mutsaers (1984) cooperated with the police in Amsterdam, Bergen op Zoom and Tilburg between 2008 and 2013. There he observed that ethnic profiling by the police is very common. The police discriminate. June 2015, Mutsaers defended his dissertation, which has since caused quite a stir. Currently, he is researching anti-police protests. How can a scientist really get to know theses protests if they are no longer carried out on the streets but on the dark web instead? In addition, he is currently rewriting his doctoral thesis, to be published by Oxford University Press.