Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Dutch police has systemic issues - it's time we faced up to them

This article is written in English for an international readership. Most links, however, are from Dutch-language
sources, as this article covers a domestic issue.

The facts, as we know them, are these. Mitch Hendriquez, a 42-year old Aruban native, was enjoying a concert at Zuiderpark in Den Haag. The police alleged that he shouted that he had a gun. Several eye witnesses and family members testified that he was clearly joking with a group of his friends. The police responded agressively, justifying this by claiming that he resisted arrest. Eye witnesses testified on social media that Hendriquez was floored and hit repeatedly with a club on his legs and head. Videos clearly show five officers holding Hendriquez in a chokehold. When they try to drag him away from the scene he is unconscious and unresponsive. Instead of calling an ambulance, they stow him in a police van. In that van he will die before reaching the police station. Later, a doctor will examine his bedraggled and bloated corpse, and declare that he did not die of natural causes. Naturally, Mitch Hendriquez was unarmed and innocent.

The media response is as predictable as it is infuriating. The prosecutorial office launches a statement on Sunday alleging that Hendriquez got unwell only in the police van. All mainstream media sources, more PR machine than critical journalists at this stage, take these statements as brutal fact, not even offering the little comfort of taking the OM's messages within parentheses or asking around for eye witnesses. After videos and social media testimonies show the reality of this brutal act, the media retract their story but by and large speculate in abstract terms. The focus of the media, as always, go to low-hanging fruit. Contrast the expediency of the media in this case with their reporting about the riots that erupted after an anti-police protest in the Schilderswijk. The pre-existing frame of the Schilderwijk is that of rioters and criminals, certainly after the anti-Semitic protests that erupted last summer and the - as it turned out completely fabricated and false - reports in Trouw about a 'Sharia triangle' in the neighbourhood. It is much easier, of course, to fit your reporting with your pre-existing conceptions, rather than change your conceptions about the police. What is lost in the process, however, is that there was a legitimate and large group of people protesting peacefully against police abuse, who do not deserve to be conflated with a comparatively small group of careerist looters.

I must stress here that the Dutch do not view themselves as racist, and that therefore any allegations that this is more than an incident go against the grain of thinking. It is especially telling that even (white) anti-racism activist Sunny Bergman decides to primarily focus on an analysis of 'old' versus 'new' media, and only glimpses past a shocking Amnesty Report that shows systemic discriminatory practices such as racial profiling exists in the Dutch police force (it is equally worrying that opinionators seem racially segregated, with minority commentators not widely commenting in mainstream media on these issues with the possible exception of Sylvana Simons, who first gained fame presenting home makeover programs).

It is alluring and easy to join her in focussing on this media condemnation. But the reality is that harsher questions should be asked about this case. Given the increasing mountain of evidence we can no longer automatically presume that the police innocently overreaches in high-tension situations or that this is merely the case of a few bad apples. The presumption has to be that the Dutch police, and specifically the Hague unit, is prone to police brutality and racist presuppositions.

Mustafa Sealiti is a middle-aged man living in The Hague and speaking with a strong local accent. In 2011 he had to report to the local police station after a traffic accident. When he leaves the station his wrist is broken and a disc slipped in his back, all of this clearly visible on video material from the police station. Mustafa can no longer work as a result. He alleges that the police officer responsible for his arrest physically mistreated him. The court which handles his case sides with the police officer's story that he could not have been responsible.

Rishi Chandrikasing was a lanky 17 year old of Surinamese-Hindustani descent. On the 24th of November, 2011, after he had been partying with friends in a night club, he stood on the platform at Den Haag Holland Spoor to travel to his grandmother before she flew back to Surinam. Police accosted him, and feared he might be armed based on nothing more than a radio broadcast. He ran away. While he was running away, his cell phone flashed in his hand. The police officer took the phone for a gun and shot him dead. The judge did not punish this officer. After this non-sentence was passed the police released details of his autopsy that showed he had traces of alcohol and cannabis in his blood. It's a shocking form of victing blaming, where the police releases this information and the media picks on it.
As worse is the fact that the judge viewed that the risk level that the officer perceived was a just criteria for the use of lethal force, even if that risk level in no way reflected reality. This simply means that if an officer does not manage to keep his head cool, not only is he not deemed unfit for his job, but he actually can get away with murder.

Vrij Nederland has reported on these and countless other incidents in an extensive longread published last November. Amnesty International has collected numerous witness statements of non-white men experiencing racial profiling. What is as galling as the existence of this horrific series of police abuse is the lack of any protection mechanism. Judges almost universally rule in favour of a police force that has strong protections under the law. Individual officers are responsible for gathering the same information that can be used against them, and a lot of evidence is often classified by the police or prosecutoral office.

But these problems don't just appear in the high echelons of Dutch courtrooms. Every day on the street dark-skinned Dutch citizens are randomly stopped and searched by the police. The Netherlands has laws that offer very little in the way of requiring justification from the police for why they stopped you. If official mechanisms exist to report abuse the lack of any follow-up coupled with their widespread usage - meaning every community knows numerous stories of unjust profiling - means that their efficacy is practically zero. It goes without saying that I as a white Dutch male have never had to suffer this indignity. This racial profiling comes from a mistaken belief that more crimes are committed by minorities, or even that ethnicity is a cause of criminal behavior (all evidence explains the latter correlation away by adjusting for economic background). The consequence however is that people living in poor diverse neighbourhoods like Transvaal and the Schildersbuurt in Den Haag feel immediatedly threathened by 'unfair' police officers. Equally, police officers immediatedly view male minorities with deep suspicion. This so negatively impacts the interaction between police and the neighbourhood that crimes go unsolved and normal situations like traffic accidents are aggravated beyond compare.

The reality is that there is an incredible likelihood of racist bias in the police force. Importantly, that does not mean that the police officers in the Hague carry a membership pass of Stormfront. It means that the subliminal preconceptions that influence our daily interactions with people of the other race express themselves in unintentional racist actions. In other words; when someone lives in a culture where every day she is reminded of socially constructed 'facts' that non-white people are criminals, are dangerous and appear threathening, through news and television and film and books, then that message will inform her daily actions and thus she might feel more fearful in the company of a dark-skinned man or evaluate a dark-skinned woman worse on her job performance. And this effect can happen even if this person is a self-described liberal and has 'ethnic' friends. Racism and intent thus need to be separated here. It's that distinction that media outlets like Elsevier and Telegraaf, as well as officials like mayor Jozias van Aartsen, get systematically wrong in reporting on police overreach. As a result they jump to the defence of police officers, they say that the police is 'not racist' (response here) or label each occurance as an isolated incident. This frustrating attitude means that any genuine shift in policy is deeply unlikely.

It's important to note here that we didn't "prove" racism in all these killings and beatings other than that the skin of the victims wasn't white. But in the face of the overwhelming and growing number of 'incidents', in the face of proven discrimination in other areas of law enforcement ánd public life, and in the biased and racially neutral discourse of our media the uncomfortable truth is that we must assume that the Status Quo belongs to racist attitudes. The logic, as the guardians of the white hegemonic status quo remind all of us, is that those who seek to change the status quo have the burden of proof. That ball should now be in their corner. Prove to us that there aren't these myriads of subconscious biases, that there are no structures where the minority experience matters less, that there is no ethnic profiling on the streets of our major cities and that the murders of innocent ethnic men can be innocuously obfuscated as "lapses of judgments".

The sad and likely reality is that the problems between police and citizens of The Hague will get worse over time. It may well be - but its by no means certain - that Mitch Hendriquez' death will be taken seriously and the corresponding officers will be brought to justice. But in a media climate where those inhabitants of The Hague who have to interact with an aggressive, posturing and racially profiling police force are miscast as young rioters or IS-sympathisants we won't get the ability to discuss in a genuine way how to deal with this miscreant force in uniform. A police force is a necessary good, and I don't want to imply here that I am anti-police on principle. But the current enforcement mechanisms aren't working and the police is inadequatedly trained to handle the complexities of today's fragmentarised multicultural society. Our countries' unwillingness to connect the dots that link Mitch, Mustafa and Rishi together means that we are not understanding why these assaults happen, and means that we don't know how to prevent another innocent's name from being added to the list. It's time we shrugged out of our ignorance and face up to the reality that Mitch, Mustafa and Rishi present more than just isolated incidents.

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