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The police and the running coloured man

10 May 2008 - There have been complaints that the police are mainly after black people in their stop and search operations, but solid evidence is lacking. Should the police follow the British example and report the ethnicity of the people they stop?

On 14 October 1976, policemen stopped a 'running coloured man' coming from a suspect bar in the Amsterdam Red Light District. He was found to be in possession of heroin, but was acquited. The policemen should not have treated the man as a suspect solely on the basis of his skin colour and whereabouts, the court ruled.

The case of the running coloured man is of interest now that Mayor Job Cohen wants to expand stop and search. Zeeburg protested against the plan because it finds the measure unnecessary and stigmatising and Oost has its doubts, but there is also a debate going on as to whether black people are more likely to be stopped than white people.

According to COT evaluations, stop and search has positive outcomes. Within three years, the number of 'weapon incidents' decreased by 35% in the stop and search area in the inner city; by 17% in the stop and search area in Zuidoost and by 4% in the rest of the city, where there is no stop and search.

A previous evaluation revealed that policemen are instructed explicitly to behave in a correct manner ('On the street there are two top priorities: treatment and treatment'). Further, 'whenever possible', they must search everybody within a designated stop and search area, so as to prevent people getting the impression that mainly black people are being searched.

Given foreign experiences, this concern would seem to be justified. Recently, it was revealed that the New York police have 'stopped and frisked' over a million and a half people during the past three years. Fifty-one percent were blacks, even though they make up only 26% of the local population.

The police have long claimed that blacks are searched more often because suspect descriptions more often concern black people, but this argument is less than convincing. Most stops are based not on suspect descriptions but on subjective observations such as 'furtive movements', 'suspicious bulge', or - always popular - 'other'.

In the UK, the discrepancy is even larger. Nine percent of black people have been subjected to stop and search during a two-year period, compared to 2.7% of Asians and 1.5% of white people. This means that black people are six times more likely to be stopped than white people.

Rick van Amersfoort of bureau Jansen & Janssen, an independent police watchdog organisation (the name refers to Tintin's Thomson and Thompson), is convinced that the Dutch police act in a more correct manner than for example the British police. Still, his organisation says in a publication that "Moroccan-looking youth who hang around [are] more likely to be asked to show their ID than white youth who hang around".

Some residents of Zuidoost criticise the fact that their neighbourhood has been designated as a stop and search area. According to former council member John Goring (VVD), they find it "hard to swallow that the police can feel black men, women and children at will during stop and search operations in Amsterdam Zuidoost. Meanwhile, Moroccans can do as they please in Amsterdam West".

A more intelligent critique of the choice of stop and search locations is offered in the publication Urban Politics Now, in which it is argued that tough police methods are deployed mainly to intimidate people with little spending power out of neighbourhoods that are due for gentrification.

Indeed, it is striking that stop and search is mainly carried out in, and proposed for neighbourhoods that are already popular among well-to-do house hunters, or neighbourhoods that are fast becoming popular, such as de Baarsjes and Zeeburg.

Within a designated stop and search area, the police should search anyone they encounter. If there are too many bypassers to search them all, they should all be let go, according to police instructions.

Apparently, that is not always how it goes. A Surinamese woman told party leader Judith Sargentini of GroenLinks how she ran into a stop and search operation at the Ganzehoef metro station in Zuidoost. She was afraid she was going to arrive late at the day care centre to pick up her child. "Fortunately, there were a lot of people, so all the women were allowed to move on", she told Sargentini.

Others reported how white people were allowed to move on during stop and search operations at metro stations in de Bijlmer and the inner city, while black people were being searched. During a large-scale police raid of bar het Vervolg in Zuidoost (not a stop and search operation), a Dutch woman was sent away whereas black people had to show their IDs.

Sargentini has asked questions about these incidents. In his answer, the mayor basically says that policemen have been instructed to search people indiscriminately and that this is what they have done. The police do acknowledge that a mistake has been made at het Vervolg, but suggest that this was an exception.

Lawyer Gerald Roethof says that the formal stop and search operations are carried out in a relatively indiscriminate way. More problems would occur during regular policing: "Clients often tell me that they have been unfairly targeted. This happens mainly in Zuidoost".

The background of policemen working in Zuidoost would play a role in this. "Many policemen are not in touch with the neighbourhood and the people who live and stay there. Also, they are often young people with little experience".

In February, Roethof himself was detained in Zuidoost, in his view because the police found it suspicious for a 'dark-coloured man' to be driving a BMW. The lawyer filed a formal complaint. "Normally I'd say, let's drop it. But it's unacceptable for the police to think they're untouchable. In my experience, they really thought: I can do whatever I want".

Roethof is not the first to complain. His colleague H.A. Belfor was stopped while driving his VW Touareg in Zuidoost, a car that 'in the policemen's mind' was too expensive for him. "In the end, they said it was a weapon search. With that argument they can legitimise any search", Belfor said.

And two years ago, former football player Winston Bogarde told de Telegraaf that he had been stopped in Zuidoost four times within five days, 'under the guise of routine checks'. Bogarde: "A great car with a nigger inside; the perfect target for a group of policemen".

With such stories it is hard to say whether the police has really acted selectively, or whether those involved only experienced it as such. The government more or less says that there is no problem as long as there are no formal complaints. However, experts say that that people who want to file a complaint face considerable barriers.

Sargentini nevertheless calls on people who feel that they have been treated incorrectly to file a formal complaint. Others say that there is little use in doing so, because it is often very hard to prove what precisely has happened. And the court will always side with the policeman, says Van Amersfoort of Jansen & Janssen.

In the UK, this problem has been solved by asking people who are stopped what their ethnicity is, so as to be able to ascertain whether specific groups are targeted disproportionately. The person who has been stopped receives a form stating the reason as well as providing contact information, and the policeman has to give his name. Further, there is a website explaining clearly what your rights are and how you can file a complaint.

Two years ago, the British police complained that the stop and search forms entailed too much bureaucratic hassle. The cost of filling in the forms would amount to £720,000 per year, or close to £2 per person stopped. This problem has been dealt with by processing the forms in part electronically.

The British stop and search forms were introduced after a murder fifteen years ago revealed institutional racism among the police. A spokesperson of the National Black Police Association told the BBC that racism is still prevalent, but that considerable improvements have been made.

The Netherlands should introduce a British-style registration, argued academics Jenny Goldsmit and Peter Rodrigues a year and a half ago in the Racism and Extremism Monitor published by the Anne Frank Foundation.

Van Amersfoort of Jansen & Janssen is unsure. He points out that it will be difficult to interpret data on the ethnicity of people who have been stopped, because the location and the objective of the operation will play a role in this.

For example, in operations in Zuidoost, many Surinamese and Africans will be searched. ID-checks often target cyclists without a bicycle light. Perhaps white people are asked for their ID more often than non-whites, simply because the latter are less likely to ride a bicycle.

Sargentini also has doubts. She emphasises that people who have been stopped must be given better written information, which should also make it easier for them to file a complaint. Lawyer Roethof says that he is normally not in favour of keeping records on ethnicity, "but if it helps establish that policing is skewed, then you should consider it".

Piet Keesman, head of the Integrity Office of the Amsterdam police, told NRC Handelsblad last month that policemen are not immune to prejudice. "In this work, you're susceptible to biased perceptions of certain groups because of experiences with certain groups of criminals".

Question is whether policemen succeed in putting their prejudice aside when they are policing the streets. Academics Goldsmit and Rodrigues think that keeping a record can help clear this up: "In this way, any bias against specific ethnic groups could be belied or confirmed".

Image above: stop and search in North West London (photo Chris White / Flickr). Middle: stop and search in Amsterdam (photo Cocky Toorenspits / Amsterdam police)


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