Ethnic Profiling as a Societal Institution in the Netherlands

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome this special “Dossier” from our own Paul Mutsaers

Psychologism and profiling ‘the other’

It is common knowledge in the sociology of police that law enforcers do not merely apply legal maxims but ‘employ discretion in invoking the law’, as Egon Bittner already put it in 1970 in The Functions of the Police in Modern Society. There is often not much consistency in the application of the law as beat officers have a large leeway when they operate in the blind spot of their desk superiors, that is, on the street. While on the beat, policing may be turned into a mechanism of social ordering that has the potential to significantly alter the life prospects of those who are encountered. When roaming in the districts, containing a demonstration, responding to an emergency call, mediating a conflict, investigating a homicide, or containing a riot, the police are actually (re)producing social hierarchies and differences in the settings in which they operate.

For some people law enforcement is a last resort they gratefully embrace in case of emergency; for others it may exact high costs in terms of stigmatization, humiliation, even brutality

For some people law enforcement is a last resort they gratefully embrace in case of emergency; for others it may exact high costs in terms of stigmatization, humiliation, even brutality (see Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order for vivid examples of the latter). In many ways, I concur with Michael Lipsky’s claim in Street-Level Bureaucracy that the police hold the keys to important dimensions of citizenship. As an executive organization they socialize citizens and non-citizens to expectations of government and to a place within or outside the political community. It is important to acknowledge that the police are not alone in realizing and reproducing distinctions between people. As Bittner emphasized long ago, ‘the differential treatment [the police] accord [the policed] reflects the distribution of esteem’ in society at large (p.11).

This brings me to a persisting facet of policing that has recently moved to the forefront of public attention in my country (the Netherlands): ethnic profiling. It became topical after the Dutch division of Amnesty International published a report (in 2013) about the disturbing effects of profiling on ethnic minorities. When this report was presented in Amsterdam to the police and other ‘stakeholders’ it was immediately discredited by the upper strata of the Dutch police, who argued that, contrary to what the report claims, ethnic profiling is not something that is structurally or systematically done by the Dutch police. Despite contrasting evidence, it is their opinion that ethnic profiling is incidental rather than structural; it does not exceed the level of incidents and it is attributable to the individuals involved in such incidents. As if these individuals operate independently from the broader socio-political developments in the Netherlands (and the Dutch police in particular) that make increasingly sharp distinctions between majority Dutch and ethnic minority ‘others’ (and in fact fuel ethnic profiling; see below).

In his blog the Chief of Police, Gerard Bouman (after nationalization of the police in 2013, we only have one Chief of Police), gives a personal reaction to the Amnesty report and asserts that ethnic profiling can always potentially emerge because it is ‘statistically unlikely that all of the 63,000 police officers work without making judgment mistakes’. ‘Just like everyone else police officers have intuitions and assumptions about minorities’, he writes indignantly. The vexing issue of ethnic profiling is here transformed into a function of the professionalism of individual officers, who simply need to learn how to wield their powers of discretion and autonomy with better precision. Many of the individual change efforts that are needed (such as awareness and sensitivity trainings, diversity modules, anti-racial professionalism courses etc.), it is stated on the website of the National Police, are already in place to make sure that officers steer clear of ‘unconscious’ ethnic profiling.

I attended several of these sensitivity training courses. What struck me was that they seemed to have very little effectiveness in changing police practices

During my ethnographic study among police officers between 2008 and 2013, I attended several of these sensitivity training courses. What struck me was that they seemed to have very little effectiveness in changing police practices. They were always designed to change the attitudes of officers and to heighten their awareness and appreciation of diversity, but almost never succeeded in the long run because much discretion was given to individuals in terms of their willingness to do anything at all with such trainings. On one occasion a seasoned officer responded to a diversity trainer’s proposal to compile a list of preferable traits/skills a police officer should have in order to counter or avoid ethnic profiling: ‘These things have come back more than 20 times over the past few years. I’m not gonna do it again, I simply refuse that’. To which the instructor responded: ‘No, of course, if you don’t want to do it, that’s your right’. The ineffectiveness of such free-floating awareness trainings is well-known in the critical diversity literature (and see Paul Amar for similar critique, but tailored to a police context).

The underlying idea of Bouman’s approach is that ethnic profiling can be prevented by simply setting officers’ minds to it. ‘We have a design for progress,’ they say. ‘All we have to do is to dislodge undesirable attitudes and stereotypical influences and we’re good’. This individualized approach is in tune with the plans of the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice, Ivo Opstelten, to ‘debureaucratize’ the police and to give even more discretion, professional autonomy and ‘constabulary independence’ to individual officers. These plans tie in with a debate that has a long pedigree in the sociology of policing and discusses the pros and cons of private initiative and discretionary authority on the one hand, and public/bureaucratic constraints and organizational authority on the other (see Bittner, Davis, Goldstein, Reuss-Ianni, Tieger). Contributors to this debate have consistently pointed at the risk of discriminatory law enforcement when bureaucratic checks and balances disappear.

At worst, this dual development of debureaucratizing the Dutch police while simultaneously devolving the responsibility for ethnic profiling to individual officers renders awareness and other sorts of diversity trainings as cosmetics on the face of ethnic profiling

At worst, this dual development of debureaucratizing the Dutch police while simultaneously devolving the responsibility for ethnic profiling to individual officers renders awareness and other sorts of diversity trainings as cosmetics on the face of ethnic profiling, superficially addressing the problem by trying to cover up the blemish. At best, we are looking at a case of what C. Wright Mills would have called ‘psychologism’, that is, ‘the attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of facts and theories about the make-up of individuals’ and the inability to understand private troubles as public issues. Such psychologism flies in the face of Bittner’s comments on police behavior as a reflection of the wider societal distribution of esteem (of different ‘categories’ of people). By individualizing and psychologizing the problem, we become unable to relate the cognitive states of officers to the broader socio-political landscapes, power relations and state governance logics through which they are shaped. Consequently, we will fail to explain things like ethnic profiling ‘beyond the level of the individual mind or collective psyche’ (Paul Amar).

Outgrowths of pernicious policies

Anthropology and its favorite method – ethnography – serve well to counter the limits of psychologism. This is not to argue that psychological accounts of ethnic profiling (and discriminatory policing more broadly) are by definition inadequate. At the very moment of writing these lines, newspaper coverage of a court case was brought to my desk by a colleague (case file ECLI:NL:RBROT:2012:BY5955) that lends itself perfectly for a psychological explanation. The case: A Senior Constable and a young recruit from the Rotterdam police receive a message from the operator that a homeless Polish migrant is causing nuisance. When they arrive, the man is sleeping on the grass. The officers decide to wake the man with their clubs, to put him in their vehicle, and to drive to a dead-end street at the border of the police district where the streets end and the woods begin. The young officer (24 years) stays to watch over the car and to have a smoke, while the Senior Constable (35 years) escorts the Polish man into the woods with a shovel in his hands. Expelling ‘undesirable migrants’ to the outskirts of the district has become a habitual practice within the police unit both officers worked for – it is even known to superiors. However, this time things seem to take longer than normal and the young officer decides to go and have a look to see what keeps his colleague so long. He has to go deep into the woods to witness what the papers now call a ‘fake execution’. The officer is standing behind the Polish man who is kneeled to the ground with the shovel in front of him, feeling the cold steel of the officer’s weapon in his neck. Apparently, it was all for show to make sure that the Polish man would never return to ‘their district’.

Although police brutality is not uncommon in the Netherlands (see for example here and here), fake executions like this are rarely reported in the news – which would make more plausible an explanation for such horrible behavior as being a function of an individual officer’s psychological pathology. What is certain, however, is that the more general practice of this sort of violent internal displacement of persons from non-Dutch ethnic groups, what I am calling ‘micro-deportations’ (minus the staged execution) has become a routine practice. This was not only confirmed by the officers involved in the fake execution as well as their colleagues and superiors, I also witnessed a variety of micro-deportations during my ethnographic study.

For instance, in the winter of 2012 I was joining a community officer on a bike patrol when we encountered a well-known and homeless as well as ‘illegal’ Somali immigrant in the city of Tilburg, my hometown. Half asleep on the sidewalk, he was surrounded by a group of children who were taunting him a little bit. They must have known that his body was weak, because they were rather audacious in their approach and seemed to be not afraid at all. The man was passively suffering the indignity and did not respond in any way. We kindly asked the children to leave and made an attempt to rouse the man. He was in a very bad condition so we called an ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance to come, the officer asked me not to mention anything in the presence of the ambulance personnel about the man’s previous run-ins with the police (he has a substantial police record mainly due to subsistence crimes and other misdemeanors, which the officer mainly ascribed to his homelessness rather than his lawlessness). ‘In case they’ll find out, they’ll leave him on the streets; it has happened before’, he said, indicating that with this knowledge in mind, the ambulance personnel would deem the man unworthy of hospital treatment. The ambulance came and I sealed my lips, partly because I wished the man well and did not want to aggravate his condition but also because I was stunned by what my companion just told me.

I had no inkling then that the attitude of the ambulance personnel was widespread among other police officers in that area. Back at the station we shared our experiences of that morning. In response to our story, one of the police students who did a traineeship at the station contributed in a tough-sounding manner while seeking approval from his senior colleagues: ‘Yeah, I know that guy. We sometimes put him in the back of our vehicle and throw him out in the industrial area’ (at the outskirts of Tilburg). A Senior Constable recounted to me in a separate conversation: ‘Last time we did this, he managed to get back to the neighbourhood quicker than we did. And we had a car!’ Then a Sergeant chimed in: ‘They are just waiting for him to die, so that he can no longer cause any trouble or cost any money’. According to the grapevine, these micro-deportations were a habitual sort of thing. This man was regarded as ‘social junk’ (Spitzer), that is, as a person who has fallen through the cracks in the social system and who is categorized as a source of nuisance upon which strictures and repressive measures can be imposed, apparently without constraints.

In broad contour if not in detail, such forms of police behavior can be connected to governmental policies that have increasingly become migrant-hostile

In broad contour if not in detail, such forms of police behavior can be connected to governmental policies that have increasingly become migrant-hostile in the Netherlands and that are designed to immobilize and eject ‘surplus populations’ (Weber and Bowling) that cannot or may not participate in mainstream Dutch society. For instance, despite the significant drop of the estimated number of ‘illegal’ residents in the Netherlands (from 211,990 in 2002 to 97,145 in 2009) the Minister of Security and Justice and the Minister of Immigration and Asylum have phrased the reduction of illegal residence and the fight against criminality of these illegal residents as a national priority for the police in the period 2011-2014. They seek to achieve this reduction of ‘others’ not only by concrete measures (e.g. the criminalization of illegal residence, the introduction of new biometric devices that can assist officers on the beat to check fingerprints, or a pledge to meet specific targets for deportation), but also by generalizing the function of policing of foreign and minority populations. Whilst this function was previously the responsibility of the Alien Police (a division which included around 1,200 full-time equivalent or FTE officers), it is now framed as a responsibility for the entire police force (almost 50,000 FTE). In contrast to many other countries (including the United States), all police officers (thus not only those working for customs or immigration service departments) are allowed to apprehend undocumented migrants, regardless of whether they are suspected of a particular crime (see also Leerkes and colleagues).

Another example: the Netherlands has been one of the pioneering countries in the world in terms of the externalization of border control. I am not only talking about re-admitting asylum seekers to alleged safe third-country nations, outsourcing asylum procedures to countries outside the EU, or using development aid budgets to ‘warehouse’ refugees in regions of origins. I am also talking about so-called ‘pre-departure strategies’ such as integration tests that non-Western migrants who intend to come to the Netherlands need to pass before their itinerary can start (see Mutsaers and Siebers). The unwillingness to deal with ‘undesirable others’ or ‘surplus populations’ is manifest and can also be witnessed in the sort of micro-deportations discussed above.


It is tempting to approach ethnic profiling… through a psychological lens [but] it is a common error to counter sociological problems – which I consider ethnic profiling to be – with psychological solutions

It is tempting to approach ethnic profiling – here understood to include not just unequal stop-and-search practices, but other types of harassment or neglect by police as well – through a psychological lens. Now perhaps even more than in the time of C. Wright Mills, it is a common error to counter sociological problems – which I consider ethnic profiling to be – with psychological solutions such as awareness trainings, which the Dutch police persist in offering as the primary solution. And perhaps it is no error at all, but simply the hold of neoliberal politics on our minds, which time and again prioritizes the individual rather than acknowledging social structures of difference and inequality, organizational practices, or political developments, in both diagnosis and cure. It is easy to think of ethnic profiling as a flaw in the mindset of individual officers. It is much more demanding to widen the frame and to have the sociological imagination needed to understand ethnic profiling as an organizational problem that is produced by broader social and political developments (which I have only touched upon here, but see Mutsaers – see also the image, translation and caption below).


Source:, NR 40   In the black box: Are Somalis ‘the new Moroccans’? Title: ‘They spit and shit on the street…’ Text: Reports show that the integration of Somalis, who give a lot of trouble in for instance the Tilburg neighborhood Stokhasselt, is in a deplorable state. Much criminality. Much unemployment. Much welfare dependency. Much fraud. Possible radicalization. What to do with this?

The above tabloid article – which is remarkable for its offensive tone – can be directly connected to the Somali man, discussed above. Several years ago he was joining a group of Somali men on a summer eve in a park in Tilburg, where they occasionally came together to chew Qat (official name Catha Edulis, a chewing tobacco from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula). The man, being homeless, defecated in public. Some (white) neighborhood residents took photographs and sent them to the city mayor. This triggered a series of events that eventually resulted in a local zoning ordinance that illegalized the consumption and trade of Qat in this area. From that moment onwards, Qat could only be used and traded in and beyond the industrial territories surrounding the neighborhood; the very same compounds the man was occasionally expelled to by the police officers I interviewed.



4 thoughts on “Ethnic Profiling as a Societal Institution in the Netherlands

  1. Thanks for this, Paul. This tendency to “psychologize” discrimination and racism I think is a deep one, and the legacy of its critique is almost equally long. In fact (*wink to my students who are currently writing a response paper on one of these blog posts*), I often contrast two approaches to confronting racism in police in my courses: Janet Chan and William Chambliss. To oversimplify a bit, Chan comes down on the “we need sensitivity training for police” side and Chambliss on the “differential treatment of racial minorities is the result of structural/bureaucratic imperatives” side.

    From this I have two questions: (1) Although I hear and understand the dangers of psychologizing that you point out, isn’t there an equal danger in “structuralizing”; that is, alleviating individual responsibility in terms of “the system”? ie, “it’s not me who’se racist, it’s the system” or “there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s larger than me”. In some of it’s darkest moments, this is one of my problems with The Wire actually.

    (2) This is perhaps a larger question than can be handled here, but I’m not sure I entirely get why you feel ethnography is so useful for getting beyond psychologizing. I see the examples, but I guess I don’t quite get how they move beyond it? I’m asking not because I don’t love ethnography, but because i can hear the voices of non-ethnographic (read: quantitative) criminologists who would argue that it is *only* such detached work that can show systematic structures


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  4. pmutsaers says:

    Thanks for your comments, Kevin. Much appreciated. They help me to keep things sharp. As time wears on, it is so easy to develop and accept a scheme of things that is no longer questioned unless one is motivated by others.

    I realize that my allergy to psychologizing efforts is jumping off the pages, but by no means do I intend to advocate the opposite, that is, a full-blown structuralization of the problems we are facing. Neither do I plead for an approach that solely encourages people to rid themselves of ethnic biases, nor for one that allocates all responsibility to ‘the system’, ‘enduring structures’, ‘longue durée’ or what-have-you – stabilities that allow people to walk away from individual responsibilities. In fact, this is what I dislike in the work of some Critical Race Scholars who are easily tempted to privilege long-term continuity of racialized and racist discourses and, consequently, downplay short-term changes and transformations. While Aamer Rahman ( has a point, I believe that his depiction of racism as a historical stability is deeply flawed. Giving racism an ontological constancy keeps you from understanding and explaining short-term changes, which are of course stirred by particular individuals or groups of individuals in particular contexts.

    What these contexts are – contexts that function as the, let’s say, ‘mediating zones’ between larger structures and unique events in which particular individuals are involved– is most crucial for the anthropological analysis, I think (see also Wallerstein [ id=H8wnle1KwMUC&printsec=copyright&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false] on structures, conjonctures and events). A proper analysis of the intermediate level (the one of context and of conjunctural temporality) keeps us from limiting ourselves to a simple ‘effect analysis’ (an analysis of the event, in which the immediate intrapsychic make-up of the individuals involved seems to be all that matters) or an all-encompassing ‘cause analysis’ (that looks at structural causes as mechanics that automatically start to operate in specific events).

    In the particular text above I hope I have made a small contribution to showing that relatively stable, but by no means rigid or timeless, structures of migrant-hostility in the Netherlands are translated into specific measures, technologies, programs and strategies (biometric devices that can be used to check the identity of those who are alleged to be illegal; local zoning ordinances forbidding Qat; Integration Acts; attempts to criminalize illegal residence etc.), which in turn fuel particular events. As demonstrated, some individuals are more inclined than others to copy a particular map of society that is offered to them. I believe that ethnography – that dialectic between reflection and immediacy, to speak with Rabinow ( – is a powerful instrument that helps us to understand where these inclinations come from and what kind of meanings become salient/active in a particular context and induce people to take one direction or another.


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