Opinion: The safety myth

POSTED: 09/26/12 12:10 PM

The Volkskrant published an interesting excerpt from the book De veiligheidsmythe (The safety myth) by privacy and safety specialist Bart de Koning. The piece offers a perspective on what people expect from their police force and what the men and women in blue are really capable of achieving.

“We wish a police of which is seen as little as possible and of which is heard as little as possible.” This quote is from Johan Thorbecke, the larger than life liberal nineteenth century statesman. Compare that with 2012, De Koning suggests and he helps its readers with some news paper reports. Officers sometimes have to walk around for months in the same pair of trousers because the police forces have no new uniforms in stock, the Telegraaf reported on its front page. Tackling crime in North-Holland is a failure, leaked statistics from several police forces show. The police region North-Holland – yet to be established – is aiming for a crime solving percentage of 15.

The Netherlands, like St. Maarten, is obsessed with everything that has to do with police and safety. Locally the issue was pushed to the forefront again after the horrible double murder on Michael and Thelma King.

In the Netherlands, the Rutte-cabinet wrote in its governing accord: “Safety is a government task. A condition form freedom and trust is an environment that is not unsafe and where there are no feelings of unsafety.”

This is a very ambitious promise, De Koning observed. An environment can only be “not unsafe” if there are no criminals. Taking all criminals off the streets is an in itself ambitious target that has never been realized anywhere. But the cabinet added even more to it. It will not tolerate that there are feelings of unsafety. The police have therefore to take care of objective safety by taking criminals off the streets but it also has to provide subjective safety by making sure that nobody lives in fear. It is a wonderful ideal, but a brief inspection of practical police work shows that it is completely unattainable.

The Netherlands is in the grasp of a safety myth, De Koning notes. The myth has two sides. On the one hand politicians depict the country often as much more unsafe as it really is. Think about statements like “the country is on fire” by Laetitia Griffith and Mark Rutte’s “we are going to re-conquer the country on the shitheads.”

The other side is that politicians promise us a utopian safe future, much safer than will ever be feasible. There is an enormous divide between what politicians, media and public expect from police and the justice system and what they really do – and what they are able to do.

Police scientists and criminologists have built up an impressive know how about what works and what does not work. Unfortunately that knowledge never reaches the public at large and politicians hardly do anything with it.

That was the reason for the research program Police and Science to take the initiative for The Safety Myth. The book dissects thirteen misunderstandings about police and justice. Think about the misunderstanding that severe punishments work as a deterrent, that zero tolerance is effective, that Dutch judges are soft, that criminal money is infecting our economy, that drugs have to be combated severely and that elderly people are often robbed.

The most important misunderstanding, De Koning notes, is maybe the notion that “blue in the streets” helps against criminality.

“The police do not prevent crime,” is a statement by the prominent American police scientist David Bayley. A mountain of international research has been unable to establish a link between the number of police officers in a country and criminality. That is counter intuitive: if there is more blue in the streets they catch more criminals and there is less crime. But that is not true. Detecting, writing police reports and maintaining law and order is only a small part of the job. Making peace, providing assistance, signaling, mediating, warning, referring and doing nothing are much more important.

The police spend at best 15 percent of its time on detecting and on real crime, half a century of research shows. Catching criminals, tracking and arresting people who commit serious crimes like murder, armed robbery, pedophilia, trafficking women and money laundering is work for detectives, not for blue in the streets.

And in the Netherlands there are far too few detectives. Politicians and journalists have been obsessed by blue in the streets for decades. Between 1991 and 2009 the police grew from 38,650 full time employees to 55,599. Of all European police forces the police in the Netherlands had experiences the fastest growth, with 43.9 percent in the past twenty years.

What are those 20,000 extra policemen and women doing? They are not on the streets catching criminals; that’s for sure. Most of the new personnel went to support services. Blue and detectives grew by 11 percent. The number of district detectives doubled to 3,200. Real blue in the streets grew by only 3 percent from 17,967 to 18,583.

Support services, for instance in dispatch rooms grew by 107 percent and management and overhead by 43 percent, In spite of its enormous growth, the Netherlands has the lowest number of detectives: 12.8 percent of all personnel, compared to for instance 17.2 percent in Germany.

There are 1,200 detectives working serious crime, another 1,200 are occupied with environment, youth and sex crimes and other specialties, and just 393 are busy with fraud, recouping criminal proceeds and computer criminality. Management and overhead takes up 28.9 percent of the total.

Who knows these figures will understand why the police in North-Holland have to struggle to achieve a solving percentage of 15. The police in Germany easily achieve a three times higher result. But the Germans have many more detectives and not that many policy workers.

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