Dutch Police Training: From Authoritarianism to Deescalation Strategies

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In World War Two, the Netherlands felt what authoritarianism does. Respect for authority declined after the war. Dutch police training adapted, and focused on social skills like deescalation strategies.

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(10-13-2017, updated 07-11-2018)  Now I first need to talk about the Dutch police, respect for authorityand 1980s Dutch police training, which focused more on deescalation strategies than on using force. You will then better understand where I’m coming from when I discuss American authoritarianism.

After the War

The German occupation (1940-1945) was a watershed moment for us. Before World War Two, before the German occupation, the Dutch in general had an unquestioning respect for authority. For the police, for instance. But during the war, most (not all) of the Dutch police collaborated with the Germans. They enabled and accommodated them, they helped them find resistance fighters and Jews in hiding. They enforced all the new rules, such as the curfew, blackout, etc. In several instances the Dutch police committed downright atrocities themselves.

After the war the Dutch respect for authority began to crumble.  Not right away–the first decade or so after the war people just wanted to  forget and get back to normal, but by the sixties the Dutch were able to take a step back and look at what had happened. The Dutch public now associated authority with the Nazis, with being stopped in the street and asked for identification, with confiscation of property, with rounding up Jews, with nationalistic songs and stomping boots, and they hated all of that. And the police, for their part, needed to do some serious soul searching.

The Nuremberg Trials

Twenty-two Nazi leaders stood trial before a court of British, American, Russian and French judges in Nuremberg, Germany, in the years right after the war. The lawyers protested that the defendants were being prosecuted for crimes that weren’t considered crimes when they committed them. The Nazis’ excuse, over and over, was: “I was just following orders“.  They were found guilty anyway, because, the prosecution argued, that they also had personal responsibility for their actions.

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann’s trial took place later — in Israel in 1961-1962, after Israeli agents found him living in Argentina. Eichmann, the man who organized the logistics of the Holocaust, made the same excuse. However, this was the first trial where witnesses–Holocaust survivors–described the horrors they had been submitted to. Folks all over the world saw this, also a first.  Survivors usually didn’t talk much, if at all, about the camps, so it was the first time the world saw people describing in detail what people had done to them. What not only soldiers, but also bureaucrats–regular civil servants, pen-pushers–did to them, and what they considered  “just doing their jobs”.

1966: Protests in Amsterdam

A few years later, in Amsterdam in 1966, the police brutally broke up a protest demonstration by construction workers. One construction worker died of a heart attack, but many thought he died at the hands of the police. One of the national newspapers, the De Telegraaf, wrote that the man was killed by a rock thrown by his fellow protesters, which led to more protests and more police violence. Folks hadn’t forgotten fact that De Telegraaf had collaborated with the German occupation during the war, so in return for the incendiary article, the construction workers attacked the De Telegraaf office.

At the same time a group of young anti-authoritarians called Provos held demonstrations and other events where they would provoke (get it?) reactions from the authorities, to reveal their undemocratic tendencies. The police used excessive force and arrested people for breaking arcane rules, just to get them off the streets. City Hall had people arrested who stood outside with bed sheets that read “Freedom of Speech”, so, to make a point, some Provos went into the streets with clean white sheets — no words at all — and they were still arrested. Some people loved the Provos, others hated them. After two years, when the mayor was fired, they disbanded. Several of the leaders went into local and later national politics. They began the national discussion about the accepted limits of authority.

The New Police Training

The Dutch public no longer had an unquestioning respect for authority, and they no longer accepted everything the police did. Over the next decades the Dutch police also realized they had to change, and they began to open up to this new notion that those in uniform still have personal responsibility for their actions, regardless of orders  and rules. In the seventies sociologists and police leaders did a lot of research into the relationship between the police and the public and into the training of law enforcement officials. There was a nationwide discussion about the expectations of both the people and the government regarding the police.

In 1983 the police completely revamped their basic police training, focusing it on people skills and how to handle the officers’ new discretionary powers.  The students, in preparation for their great responsibilities on the street, were also more responsible for their own education. Rather than receiving all their information passively from teachers in a classroom, they did a lot more of their own research, on the street and in the so far non-existent police school library. That’s where I came in, and within months of one another, four more librarians at the other four basic training schools in the country.

During my eight years as the librarian at De Boskamp, I observed this new training and the kind of people it attracted.

Dutch police training was divided into two levels. The Politie Academie was what is now called a university of applied sciences for higher police education, which prepared students for management positions within the police. A degree from this academy was more or less the equivalent of a masters degree in police management. Those who wanted to become policemen and women on the streets went to one of the five police schools. Each of these schools trained students for police forces in their region. A person would apply for the job of police officer at a police force of their choosing. If accepted, the police force then sent them to the police school in their district.

While the police academy offered a four-year degree, the police schools offered 18-month training. The students spent the first twelve months entirely at the school, acquiring all the laws and skills needed on the street. The next six months was an internship in their police forces, followed by another three months back at the training school. During this time they processed their experiences on the street and in the police force, and delved deeper into the bigger issues such as police corruption, police violence, the police culture, police ethics, etc., and how to withstand them.

The law–criminal, civil, traffic, wildlife, etc.–was taught in the classroom, as well as writing police reports. (After all, there could be no misunderstandings as to what happened during an incident because of a grammar mistake!) There was a shooting range for gun skills and a gym where the students were trained in self-defense and safe restraining techniques, but a new and one of the most important elements of this revamped police training was the state-of-the-art practice street. At the time this was the first of its kind in the world.

Imagine a movie or television set with part of a street–the road, sidewalk, streetlights, etc. and the fronts of houses, and behind those facades a living room, bedroom, kitchen, etc. And two or three professional actors. This is where the students and actors played out different scenarios, where they practiced human interaction skills, including effective deescalation strategies that prevented the need for violence most of the time.  There were always two students in the situation, because in the Netherlands police officers worked in twos. The rest of the class watched behind the scenes on video with the instructor.  After the twosome resolved a situation, the whole class discussed it, along with the actors. The actors  and the students in the situation talked about how they had felt, and the teacher could give pointers for a next time. So could the other students. A former police manager-turned-film-maker made a video series for interaction training, using the same kind of situations the students practiced at school.

The Practice Street

Why was this interaction training so important? Officers were going to have more discretionary powers, which meant they could be more flexible in handling situations. They no longer had to write tickets for every little rule broken because the law is the law. To a degree they could now use their judgment in each situation. Was it really the best use of their time to write a ticket every time a person breaks even the smallest of laws when there were bigger problems?  But with the ability to make choices also comes the danger of manipulation (either by the officer or by the civilian) and abuse of power.

For instance: when an officer stops someone on the street for running a red light, does he write a ticket or does he give a warning? The fact that he can decide, based on the situation, is good. But what if the civilian is a woman who flirts a little with him, and he gives her a warning, while if the civilian reacts impatiently, or even rudely, he might give him or her a ticket?  In the first instance he would be manipulated by the flirtatious woman and in the second instance  he would be punishing someone for not being polite instead of for the issue he stopped him for, which would be an abuse of power.

So the students were trained to approach a civilian having decided beforehand whether the situation warranted a ticket or a warning. The first thing they said to the civilian was what they just observed and that they were going to give either a warning or a ticket, before the person reacted. Because how the person reacts to getting a ticket or a warning for walking through a red light is not relevant to the situation that he’s being stopped for.

The public had also had enough of the police brutality, and the actors in the practice street were a wonderful tool for teaching ways to prevent escalation of situations and ways to deescalate situations they walk into. For example, if two men were yelling and fist-fighting each other, officers could each grab one of them and slam them up against the wall and handcuff them, which would only make them madder, and the chance that the officers and the men got hurt in the process was big. Unless they pulled out their guns, but that would have been excessive force, if neither of the fighting men had a gun themselves.

The students learned to break up a fight by getting in the middle, with their backs to each other, and each engaging one of the men. They would immediately start asking questions, commanding with their body language and tone of voice and the type of questions that the men break eye contact with each other and focus on the officers. The officers would start taking a few steps back and sideways while asking questions, until the men stood with their backs to each other. Once the men were focused on the officers and couldn’t see each other anymore, the situation was often calmed down considerably, while the officers hadn’t laid a finger on either man.

This  was the stuff the students at our police school learned during the first year of their training. These deescalation strategies were based on psychological and sociological research and taught by former police officers who were no longer part of any police force, but full-time teachers at the training school. They were dedicated to delivering well-trained, well-mannered officers with skills relevant to the society they were about to enter. The students weren’t trained in a completely insulated police environment, either. They also learned from the actors, who were civilians; everything related to writing was taught by Dutch teachers (Like English teachers, but Dutch), and law was taught by jurists.

Personal Responsibility

They also learned about the history of the police and the role it had played during the German Occupation. The focus was on the dangers of authoritarianism. The most important thing the students came away with was that you never “just follow orders”.

De Boskamp, the police training school I worked for, had an especially profound connection to World War Two. It was built on the grounds of a World War Two internment camp, where  regional resistance fighters, Jews, gays, communists, etc,–anyone the Nazis didn’t like–were brought before being transported to Westerbork, another way station further north, from where they were sent to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. The camp had been demolished; only one watch tower was preserved. Beside it a small museum displayed photos, documents and objects from the camp. Both were located at the entrance to the school, so the watch tower was the first thing one saw.

During lunch I sometimes went for walks with colleagues in the woods around the school, and we’d invariably end up at the statue of a man with clenched fists, facing a steep, U-shaped hill.  This is where the Germans executed prisoners. They would tell them that if they reached the top of the hill alive, they were free to go. So they unshackled them, and they would start to run. The German soldiers would wait until the prisoners were almost at the top, and then they’d shoot them in the back.

The vast majority of the students joined the police because they wanted to help people, because they liked interacting with people on a human level. Occasionally there would be a bad apple, someone who was in it for the uniform and the gun and the power he thought he was going to have. Or someone who didn’t take the responsibility seriously enough.

I was walking down the hall one day and as I turned the corner I suddenly found myself staring down the barrel of a gun. Nah, not really, it wasn’t at eye level, but a student was pointing his gun at me, nonetheless. He didn’t know it was going to be me–he probably didn’t even know someone was about to come around the corner. He was hanging out there with the rest of his class, waiting for the firearms instructor, and he was being the class clown. With his gun. I never mentioned it; I was too taken aback, but he was fired soon after. It was probably not his only incident; I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter. The point is that it often became clear during the training if someone was not suited for the job, and the school determined this, people who were not connected to any particular police force.

Outward-looking, Or Not

The first International Police Women’s Conference was held at our school around the late eighties or early nineties, I don’t remember exactly. I tagged along because I had translated articles for their newsletter and because my English was above average. It helped them to have another person whom people could ask questions. There were police women from Norway to Belize, and several from America.

Since the conference was held in a school for Dutch police training, we went to the practice street, which we were very proud of–we knew that nobody else had anything like it anywhere. We walked through it, described how it worked and showed some of the interaction videos, which had been subtitled in English. The American women near me talked among themselves through most of it. At lunch I sat at a table with two American women and several others from all over. The other women talked with one another, exchanged information and occasionally asked me questions. The American women talked among themselves, showing no interest whatsoever in the others at the table. They shared hiding spaces for their guns. One of them hid hers in a cereal box on top of the fridge. The other hid hers inside the fridge.

(This post is part 5 in the series Fascism in America. The next post will be about authoritarianism. It was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Fascism in America 5: A Little Detour to the Dutch Police”, 10-13-2017)

Header image: bouwvakkersrellen Amsterdam, 1966. anp-archief.nl

Series Navigation<< The Flag, the Pledge, The Anthem: Patriotism or Nationalism?Authoritarianism: Respect for Authority — the President, Teachers, Police >>

2 thoughts on “Dutch Police Training: From Authoritarianism to Deescalation Strategies

  1. Is there any data comparing incidents of civilian deaths by police in Holland and the US? The kind of training you describe, with the emphasis on de-escalation of situations, seems so logical. It’s hard to believe it isn’t used in North America. Even in Canada (which many of us Canadians thing is “better” than the US), there have been many incidents in which mentally-disturbed people end up dead after contact with police.

    1. I’d have to look for them. It would be hard to compare the two because America also has a serious gun problem, and it seems that almost all the training in America is based on assuming that someone is armed and will shoot unless you spray them full of bullets first.

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