Stop and search in Holland

21st 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.

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