It’s time to stop making excuses for racial profiling

Tpolitieautohe behaviour of Dutch police towards rapper Typhoon, who was pulled over while driving his white SUV because it failed to match his skin tone, will have surprised few people. The hurricane of denial that followed, however, should trouble us all. Judging from the comments on the issue on the national police intranet, as reported in this weekend’s NRC, most officers continue to believe that a spot of racial profiling is a feature of the job. ‘I’m not sad about it at all,’ wrote one. ‘Our colleagues dealt with it properly.’ ‘Profiling is part of police work,’ said another. ‘You can’t avoid criteria such as skin colour, age and gender. This spot check has received a disproportionate amount of attention because it involved a well-known person.’

That brings us to the second tranche of denial: the claim that Typhoon’s treatment only made national headlines because of his fame. That is partly true, but it only serves to highlight the problem, since it implies that for every Typhoon there are hundreds of others who are stopped and searched for no reason. Typhoon’s experience made national headlines not just because of his high profile, but because the police publicly admitted that he had been subjected to racial profiling. And even then, they stuck rigidly to the line that the episode was an ‘incident’ and not representative of policing policy.

As the comments on the police intranet make plain, the official explanation is not credible. In Amsterdam the appeal court recently issued a damning judgment on a technique known as “dynamic traffic controlling”, which was pioneered by the city’s police division, published as a booklet and distributed throughout the country. It instructs traffic police to carry out random stop and searches of people whose social status puts them in a high-risk crime group, such as young black men, even if they are doing nothing to attract suspicion. The problem, the court said, was that it blurs the distinction between traffic policing, which is a public order matter, and criminal enquiry, where the presumption of innocence is supposed to hold sway. The response of the public authorities was to shrug and announce that they planned to carry on regardless. They cited the method’s successes to justify their dismissive attitude. One episode concerned a BMW X6 in Amsterdam West, described in the official report as “a very expensive car with an Eastern European type in the passenger seat and a Hindustani/ Surinamese driver, a striking combination.” Officers stopped it on the pretence that they were carrying out a routine traffic check, but then asked to look in the boot, since there had been a few gangland murders in the area lately. Inside they found nearly a kilo of cannabis. This chance discovery and exercise in official duplicity was posted as a triumph for “dynamic controlling”. In fact it is a variation on the post hoc ergo praeter hoc fallacy: because one dodgy stop and search turned up a nugget, it justifies all the others where nothing is found. Against that background, the Typhoon affair was an embarrassment waiting to happen.

The day-to-day reality of this is reflected in cases such as that of Gerald Roethof, who told his story to NRC shortly after Typhoon was stopped. Roethof is a 43-year-old lawyer and, unexceptionally for his peer group, drives a BMW 7 series. But Roethof has a Surinamese background and caught the eye of a pair of traffic cops who pulled him over for a routine stop. When they asked to check the contents of his boot, Roethof, aware of his rights, refused. The policeman responded by firing pepper spray into his face and calling for back-up. When one of the reinforcements had the wit to recognise Roethof (as an individual, rather than a stereotype), the lawyer was released.

The excuses from the police came quick and fast in the wake of the Typhoon episode. If they discriminated on the basis of skin colour, it was because minorities are statistically more likely to commit crimes, they said. ‘Don’t these dark-skinned people understand that crime often comes back to Dutch minorities?’ asked one of the contributors to the internal message boards. Louis Bontes, an MP who used to be a policeman, gave the example of an Antillean mob who were active in his neighbourhood a few years ago. It made perfect sense, Bontes argued, for the police to focus their efforts on people who matched the description of the suspects. But none of this explains why middle-aged lawyers were being stopped in broad daylight, or given a shot of pepper spray because they frustrated a traffic cop’s desire to flout the limits of his authority. It does not justify the experience of Dutch Turks who speak of being stopped three times on the way from Scheveningen to The Hague’s Schilderswijk, a journey of around six kilometres. It takes no account of the corrosive effect it has on people’s respect for the police, or the message it sends out that even if you live within the law and do everything you’re told, the authorities will still regard you as a criminal purely because of the colour of your skin. As Gerald Roelof argued, it undermines the trust of minority communities in the police. ‘It entrenches the division in society,’ he said. ‘Young boys wonder: why are we treated differently? It creates a breeding ground for them to put themselves outside society by joining the criminal world and suchlike.’

Almost every media report on the issue of on ethnic profiling brings up the connection between ethnicity and offending, without bothering to probe the socio-economic factors such as low incomes and education that underpin it. It is an oddly tribal attitude. Your car is more likely to be set on fire in a community where the PVV has a high share of the vote, but nobody is seriously writing off the entire herd of Wildersbeesten as pyromaniacs. Recently rumours have surfaced that German terrorists from the 1970s moved to the Netherlands and are now stealing and selling off second-hand cars to make ends. Will the police now start targeting men in their seventies who are driving round in battered old Opels and look a bit German? But make this kind of crude generalisation about Dutch Turks and Moroccans and watch the heads nod sagely in agreement.

The focus on allochtonen (first and second generation migrants) as perpetrators of crime also hides the broader truth that these groups are far more likely than indigenous Dutch people to be victims of crime. According to the national statistics service, 44.9% of non-western migrants were the victim of a criminal offence in 2015, compared to 29.6% of native Dutch. A migrant has more than twice as likely to be broken into than his Dutch counterpart – the likelihood is 6.7% and 3.1% respectively. Obsessively reducing a section of the population to its crime statistics, disregarding all its other social disadvantages, is simply using one type of discrimination to excuse another.

What is really puzzling is why a nation that has been at the forefront of combating other forms of prejudice is stuck in the 1970s when it comes to race relations. In a special report on racism last weekend, De Volkskrant filled nearly three pages with an interview with the leader of the Dutch branch of Pegida. It would be unthinkable for a newspaper to give that kind of space to an anti-gay rights campaigner representing a fringe group of unreconstructed homophobes. But Edwin Wagensveld, who cheerfully admits to wearing a hat in the shape of a pig’s head at an anti-Islam demonstration, is seen as having a valid point of view. Such voices should not be silenced, but confronted with their own absurdity until they shuffle away in shame. Only then will we start to break the culture of denial that allows the police in a free country to pursue a policy of stopping law-abiding citizens going about their business, for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

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