Stop and search in Holland

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Dutch police now have the power to randomly stop and search people in designated "high-risk" areas. But is this new measure a valuable crime fighting tactic or a step towards increased racial profiling and decreased civil liberties? Cormac Mac Ruairi investigates.

Many Dutch politicians are now rallying behind a controversial law that would give police new powers to trawl for lawbreakers.

The "wet preventief fouilleren" or preventative search law gives police the right to indiscriminately search people in designated "high-risk" areas.

The measure has received widespread political support on the local and national level and, in a recent poll, 92 percent of Amsterdammers said they also supported increased "stop-and-search tactics".

Civil liberty advocates however have voiced concerns that the new policy could inflame already heated racial tensions by encouraging racial profiling.

Critics have also suggested that wet preventief fouilleren may be in violation of the Dutch Constitution and the European Charter of Human Rights.

Legal adviser for the National Bureau against Racial Discrimination Carolina de Fey said: "As far as we know there has not been any organised opposition to this law; however, many people within and outside the legal field believe that this law is an invasion of personal privacy, a person's physical integrity and their right to move about freely as laid down in our Constitution."

De Fey added that the law violates a fundamental human rights principle — namely that individuals should not be stopped and searched by police unless they are suspected of a criminal offence, as laid down in the Dutch Criminal Code and other international treaties such as the Convention on Human Rights.

Stop and search post September 11

Under the guise of national security and the war against terrorism, some European Union nations have stepped up their policing tactics, to the alarm of civil liberty and anti-discrimination groups.

Although stop-and-search is not a new measure, critics such as Statewatch, an independent group monitoring threats to civil liberties in the EU, believe European governments may use the fear of terrorism to pass legislation that furthers the powers of police to the detriment of individual rights and relations with local minority communities.

Stop-and-search police tactics introduced in Britain and Germany in the 80s and 90s have led to claims of racial profiling and the unfair targeting of migrants.

Similar concerns are now being raised in the Netherlands, said De Fey.

"The [Dutch] law itself cannot be regarded as discriminatory against certain ethnic minorities since it aims to stop and search everyone within a certain area without singling out persons. However, we do not exclude the possibility that in practice certain ethnic minorities could be singled out. We therefore do not favour this law," she said.

Dutch courts also deemed the tactic unlawful during its early trials.

 In 1999 Rotterdam police carried out a two-hour stop and search operation in the Millinxbuurt, one of the city's crime hot spots. The police action, which entailed cordoning off the district and searching everyone indiscriminately coming in and out of the area, turned up a number of weapons and drugs.

But the courts stepped in and ruled that searching people who were not suspected of any crime was illegal.

Following this, Christian Democrat (CDA) MP Wim van de Camp led a successful campaign to have the law changed.

Under the 1 September ruling, a mayor of a town or city can ask the justice department to label any street or locality high-risk, allowing the police to search every passer-by for guns and other weapons over a 12-hour period.

Rotterdam has already used the law to carry out searches in the Tarwewijk area of the city, and Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen is keen to use the new power in the capital.

It is expected the city council will endorse the stop-and-search tactic in November and that it will come into effect in January.

A valuable crime-fighting tool?

The first Amsterdam areas to be subjected to the new regime will be the red-light/city centre district and the Bijlmer suburb in the southeast.

Since 2000, 1575 incidents involving weapons have been recorded in the city centre and a further 1089 in the south-eastern suburbs. Together these two areas account for a quarter of all armed crime in Amsterdam.

Marleen Nieuwenhuis of Amsterdam city council dismisses the concerns surrounding stop and search. "Experience shows that people who live in these types of areas actually welcome such initiatives," she said.

And police insist that such operations are necessary. "Everyone is calling for more uniforms to make the streets safer. Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.

"Taking just one gun or knife out of circulation can save a life and this tactic has captured dozens of lethal weapons since September," a Rotterdam police spokesperson said.

In recent months, the police have also carried out large-scale arrest operations against Bulgarians and Romanians living here illegally and allegedly involved in crime and prostitution.

Hundreds of people were rounded up and deported. A number are still detained here for trial.

"These two groups alone accounted for a lot of crime in our major cities so removing them makes life better straight away," the spokesperson said.

The police are keen to point out that large-scale operations are needed to disorientate criminals and dispel their belief in their own invincibility.

In practice, at least in Rotterdam where stop and search operations have been held several times, there has been no indication so far that racial profiling is taking place on the basis of this law.

In mid-October, in Rotterdam's Tarwewijk area, about 450 people were searched on the street and the police checked customers in two cafes. A number of knives, baseball bats, tear gas canisters and drugs were recovered.

Rotterdam resident Cathy Boom says the effects of these operations are noticeable. "There are far fewer junkies hanging around Central Station now because they know they could run into a stop-and-search without warning."

"I have noticed less dubious personalities hanging around my own neighbourhood too. However, I suppose these searches haven't really solved the problem, but moved it on somewhere else," Boom said.

Nevertheless, the new crime fighting measure appears to be receiving wide support from the general public.

According to a poll sponsored by the Amsterdam city council and conducted by research bureau O&S, a total of 92 percent of 400 surveyed Amsterdam residents are in favour of regular inspections for weapon possession in the inner city and Zuidoost.

Civil liberties implications and EU law

In its national safety and security plan presented to the Lower House in early-October, the outgoing government called for an expansion of stop-and-search, as well as greater use of CCTV and checks on illegal residency by aliens.

The proposal may be short-lived however if the law is challenged in European court, said Professor of criminology Ties Prakken at Maastricht University.

"We will only know for certain if stop-and-search is illegal if and when a person stopped by the police takes a case to Europe," Prakken said.

If challenged in court, she added, the law might be deemed to be in violation of the European Charter of Human Rights, which states everyone has the right to liberty and security of person, except in certain cases in accordance with legally prescribed procedures, such as a sentence imposed by a court or police detaining a criminal suspect.

"If the tactic is used mainly against marginal groups — such as minorities and less well off people — it is doubtful if a court case will be taken. A challenge to the law would be far more likely if a business person was subjected to a search," she said.

The chances of a challenge succeeding in a particular case would also depend on how well the mayor, police and department of justice complied with the rules and procedures dictated by the law, she said.

In the meantime, individuals stopped by police have no option but to submit to a search, as police are allowed to use force if necessary.

"Afterwards you can go to court, but the chances are slim that the the action will be found to be unlawful since the court does not like to question political decisions," said De Fey.

"If you do not want to be searched, your only choice is to avoid the area."

October 2002

Kristine Garcia contributed to this article.

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