Police discrimination is a persistent problem in the Netherlands. According to associate professor Hans Siebers, science is partly to blame for that. “When it comes to providing well-founded recommendations on how to tackle discrimination, we have left the police in the cold.”
Max Daniel is the only non-white member of the Dutch police top. In an interview published in de Volkskrant last week, he warned that police forces are ‘too white’. Cops are losing touch with the ethnically diverse society they serve, and the police need to recruit more officers from migration backgrounds, Daniel said.
Hans Siebers, associate professor in Culture Studies and ReflecT at Tilburg University, agrees that a lack of diversity within police forces can be harmful. “There is an interplay between social polarization in society, which augments discrimination, and the lack of diversity within police forces”, he explains. “The national police force doesn’t have to be an exact reflection of society. But for the police to uphold their legitimacy, it is crucial that no serious forms of discrimination are committed by or amongst police officers. Unfortunately, that is the case.”
Initiatives to promote diversity have been implemented by the police top for decades, without success. “The problem of discrimination hasn’t diminished”, Siebers says. “Apparently, recruiting people with a migration background doesn’t have much effect. In most cases, this only leads to a revolving door effect: people enter the organization, but leave just as quickly. The same can be said for trainings designed to increase the ‘cultural awareness’ of police officers. While there aren’t any systematic studies that substantiate the effectiveness of such trainings, there are many indications that suggest they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
Why science isn’t helping
Discrimination within the police organization and towards civilians remains a problem. But simply pointing the finger at the police is too easy, Siebers says. Our inability to tackle police discrimination is a collective failure – and science should also take accountability. “We can accuse police of not handling problems relating to discrimination well, but if we don’t provide any solutions and we’re just making unfounded claims, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see the police top turn away from those problems.”
According to Siebers, his colleagues are currently either making unfounded statements that provide Dutch police officers with an excuse to discriminate, or indulging in ‘police bashing’ without giving recommendations on how to do things better. “On the one hand, there are colleagues like Gabriel van den Brink who claim that there are cultural differences between people with a migration background and people without a migration background.
‘A good scientific analysis that can provide structural solutions should focus on politics and management’
Such unfounded claims give cops a perfect justification for excluding other officers from a presumed migration background, and for being suspicious of civilians from a presumed migration background”, Siebers says. “And on the other hand, there are colleagues like Paul Mutsaers, who seem to have made a sport out of police bashing without providing a single evidence-based recommendation on how to handle discrimination. That’s cheap, and it understandably leads to a sense of resistance in the police towards the problem itself. That gives science a bad name.”
Towards a solution
So what can be done to effectively tackle discrimination by and within police forces? In the interview, Max Daniel gave an example on how to promote diversity. “If we would need 200 new officers, we could ask all colleagues of color to put forward around four candidates from their own family and friend circles”, he said. “The colleague that put the new recruit forward, could subsequently act as a mentor.”
Siebers thinks this is an interesting idea, but he doesn’t believe it would solve the problem. “It wouldn’t solve the political factors that incite discrimination. And it wouldn’t solve the existing bottle necks within the police organization, which allow discrimination to flourish”, he explains. “Discrimination is a political problem and a management problem. A good scientific analysis that can provide structural solutions should focus on a combination of those factors. If we would start a dialogue with the police top and provide them with well-founded conclusions and recommendations on how to effectively tackle discrimination, we would be making a big step forward.”
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