Until recently, the term ethnic profiling was rarely used in the Netherlands, let alone that people understood what was meant by it. This has changed over the past months. In October and November Amnesty International launched two reports respectively on the matter: Proactive policing as a threat to human rights: Recognizing and fighting ethnic profiling and Equality under pressure: The impact of ethnic profiling. The latter is a co-production with the Open Society Justice Initiative for whom we have conducted a literature review. Both reports aim to seek attention for ethnic profiling in the Netherlands.
According to the NGO, ethnic profiling is the use of assumptions about a person’s ethnicity or origin by law enforcement officials in control, surveillance or investigation activities, without objective and reasonable justification. Following this definition, in order to rightly claim that ethnic profiling is a problem in the Netherlands, it is necessary to have empirical evidence showing that – certain – minority groups are actually being disproportionally targeted by the police. This empirical evidence is precisely the problem. According to researchers, Amnesty has been cherry picking which does not do justice to the state of the art in the field. So although researchers fully agree that being aware of the risks of ethnic profiling is important and although many people feel unfairly treated, Amnesty has gone a step too far by declaring ethnic profiling to be a structural problem and by blaming it on the police without paying attention to the context in which decisions to stop people in the streets are taken. In doing so, Amnesty has too easily blamed frontline professionals who are faced with a very difficult and complex task and whose help is crucial if we really want to change the situation.
The lack of sound empirical research
In their first report – Proactive Policing – Amnesty International provides an overview of the relatively limited Dutch research into the matter in order to show that the malpractice of ethnic profiling is taking place in the Netherlands. Whereas studies do give reason for some concern in this area, this is not because there is empirical data showing the structural disproportional targeting of minority groups by proactive police controls. Most studies do not conclude this at all. What some of the research does show is that part of the population is of the opinion that the police are using ethnic profiling to guide their decision making.
The importance of perceptions
Although hard empirical evidence on actual selectivity is lacking, this doesn’t mean that ethnic profiling should be ignored. On the contrary. At least a part of the population seems to experience some of the proactive checks and searches as discriminatory or at least as highly intrusive. Young persons with a migrant background have stepped up to express their concerns. They are fed up with being seen as criminals and being asked time and again to show their IDs in everyday life. Following the theoretical framework of procedural justice, the power of experiences and perceptions should not be underestimated. The mere perception of acting in a discriminatory manner – regardless of the lack of factual empirical evidence supporting this – can be highly damaging for the police.
The importance of dialogue
The Amnesty reports have led to parliamentary questions addressed to the Minister of Security and Justice and various public events during which – mostly – minority youth shared their troubled experiences with the police. The taboo which existed before is definitely broken. In order to stimulate an actual open and constructive dialogue on the matter, it is important to also pay attention to the police’s side of the story: How DO they actually come to some of their decisions regarding proactive controls? Which factors – besides someone’s looks and associated potential ethnicity – play a role in these decisions? To what extent is the still predominantly white middle-aged male police force trained well enough in this respect? Is the organisation willing to be open about their day-to-day dilemmas in particular in multi-ethnic neighborhoods which often have high crime figures as well? How do police officers on the beat deal with information on crime patterns and criminal specialisation? How well do complaint procedures function in present multi-ethnic society? Are there better ways to engage in an open dialogue with citizens and in particular with young people from often targeted communities about these issues?
Amnesty is right that ethnic profiling and feelings of being treated unfairly deserve much more attention. It is also a major step forward that we are now starting to hear the voices of young people who feel stigmatised by the Dutch public debates throughout the past decades on crime and people with a migrant background. But a real dialogue should be open to all parties involved, including the police. Several researchers in the field have experienced that the Dutch police have demonstrated that they are interested in the issue. They acknowledged its importance and they have been open to researchers. This is more than most of our foreign colleagues who do research in their own countries can say. We do not see why people point towards the police instead of inviting them to join the dialogue so they can help protect and where necessary rebuild trust. The time would appear to be right.