The police, changing security arrangements and late modernity: the case of the Netherlands.

Author:Terpstra, Jan


During the last fifteen years remarkable changes occurred in policing and security arrangements in The Netherlands. These changes are closely related to the shift to late modern society. For many Dutch citizens today safety problems should be the highest priority of the government. Feelings of unease about crime often result from general insecurities related to life in late modern society. On the one hand citizens expect the government and especially the police to solve the problems of crime and disorder, if necessary with harsh measures. On the other hand, however, both the government and the police are confronted with a loss of legitimacy. Five developments in public safety policy and policing in The Netherlands must be understood as answers to these developments: in organizational and managerial arrangements, in relations between the state and other agencies, extra-judicial measures and attention to victims, new technologies of prevention and surveillance and a harsher, stricter policy. These developments, however, create new problems and tensions.

  1. Introduction

    The prominent police scientists Bayley and Shearing have stated that, over the past ten to fifteen years, modern democratic countries like the United States, Britain, and Canada have experienced a fundamental break in the development of their systems of crime control, policing and law enforcement; 'Future generations will look back on our era as a time when one system of policing ended and another took its place' (Bayley and Shearing, 1996: p. 585). They maintain that a process of pluralizing of policing, coupled with a serious identity crisis, amount to a radical restructuring of policing in contemporary democratic societies.

    Their analysis has been criticized by Jones and Newburn (2002) for overlooking the continuities that are equally important in understanding the current practices of policing in western countries. Moreover, they question the assumption made by Bayley and Shearing that the transformations in policing can be seen as global. Their thesis fails to take sufficient account of significant differences between the nature of policing in the United States and European countries.

    In this paper we describe and analyse the main changes that have occurred in policing, security arrangements and public safety policy in the Netherlands during the last ten to fifteen years. In the Netherlands in the 1990's public safety became a central concern to many citizens and was a central topic on the political agenda. The last two decades or so have witnessed a remarkable change in the Dutch criminal justice climate. The traditional liberal, permissive criminal justice climate in this country was in many respects replaced by a harsher penal policy. At the same time, however, there were also other, almost contradictory developments.

    Following Garland (2001), Newburn (2001) and Johnston (1998), among others, we assume that the changes in policing over the last ten to fifteen years are closely related to a complex of social changes which may be described as the shift to a 'late modern' society. In most western countries this shift has been accompanied by a rise in the level of crime, a growing awareness and fear of insecurity and considerable impediments to citizens and governments seeking to find adequate (both formal and informal) ways of dealing with the problems of crime and disorder. Moreover, these developments have contributed to a change in the position of the government, and of public institutions more generally. The influence of these general social changes on policing and security arrangements depends on the ways relevant actors and agencies deal with them. To what extent are the changes in policing and security arrangements, including those in the Netherlands, to be understood as closely related to the shift to a late modern society?

    In this paper we first deal with the late modern social context of changes in policing (2). We then describe public safety in the Netherlands as a social problem (3) and the expectations of Dutch citizens with regard to the police (4). Then we present an analysis of the main changes in policing and security arrangements in the Netherlands over the last ten to fifteen years (5). Some concluding remarks follow in Section 6.

  2. Late modernity and the awareness of risk

    The shift to a late modern society has been analysed by Giddens (1991; 1994) as the result of three long-term changes. First, there is the influence of an intensifying globalization in which activities in separate locations become more directly connected. Social activities are increasingly disembedded from their local context. Secondly, there is the emergence of a 'post-traditional social order'. This does not mean that traditions completely disappear, but that they lose their taken-for-granted nature, that they have to explain themselves and that they increasingly become a matter of choice. The third basic change is the expansion of social reflexivity. These changes result in a growing cultural pluralism and fragmentation, coupled with a gradual process of individualization. As a result, individuals are both able and indeed forced to make choices about their life styles and life situations--what Beck (1986; 190) calls a 'Wahlzwang'.

    In making these choices about life style and biography, citizens in late modern society are dependent on all kinds of experts. Nevertheless, there is often still a great deal of doubt and scepticism about the experts' ability to solve problems. Therefore experts and their specialized body of knowledge often do not contribute to a stable environment. On the contrary, one of the main elements of late modern society is the widespread awareness of risks among its citizens. This does not imply that life in contemporary society is associated with more risks and dangers than in prior eras. However, a main difference is that current risks are, to a relatively large degree, 'man-made'. Moreover, thinking in terms of risks and risk management is a more or less permanent exercise: it becomes hard to ignore in a generalized risk climate (Giddens, 1991: pp. 123-126). Despite the fact that gathering information on risks and the assessment of potentially hazardous situations, as well as the prevention and avoidance of risks, have become an element of many institutions and daily routines, insecurity and the fear of risks and lack of safety are still growing:

    Living in a secular risk culture is inherently unsettling, and feelings of anxiety may become particularly pronounced [...]. The difficulties of living in a risk culture do not mean that there is greater insecurity [...]. They concern anxieties generated by risk calculations themselves (Giddens, 1991: pp. 181-182).

    This situation may be regarded as a paradox: never before in history has so much time and attention been spent and expertise devoted to the production of security and the reduction of risks. At the same time, however, trust in experts and in intervention is extremely fragile. In Giddens' terminology, in late modern society people are confronted with an ontological insecurity in a world that seems to slip from their control, a 'runaway world' (Giddens, 1994).

    The processes of globalization, disembedding and an enhanced social reflexivity have far-reaching implications for the economy of western societies. The opportunities offered by the new information technology play an important role here. Economic activities are increasingly dependent on decisions made elsewhere in the world. Production processes and the use of labour have come to depend strongly on severe demands for flexibility and mobility. During the last decades a shift has been occurring from an industrial economy to a service economy based on information. These changes have drastic consequences for social inequality and for the socially and economically disadvantaged. Instead of a culturally homogeneous lower class, with its basis in industry, there is a culturally fragmented underclass in which many forms of deprivation may be found, closely related to very diverse forms of social exclusion and marginalization, in which biographic choices may also be an important element (Beck, 1986; Wilson, 1987).

    The shift to a late modern society also strongly influences the position of the state. The combination of a high awareness of risks, the frequent claims made on the expertise of 'abstract systems' and at the same time the lack of trust in their capabilities, means that the authority and legitimacy of the state in many western countries has been eroding since the early 1980's. The lack of trust in the capabilities of the state to create adequate answers to social problems and the antipathy to the (supposed) dependency of citizens on the state, also changes the position of the state. Tasks and responsibilities, once seen as principally public in nature, are now transferred, partly or as a whole, to other agencies. Since the 1980's decentralization, privatisation, the introduction of quasi-markets, contracting out, self-regulation and the transfer of tasks to supranational bodies have come to dominate many policy sectors and are all examples of this process. The national government not only loses many of its former tasks, but in many respects there is also an exhaustion of the former optimistic expectations about the social functions that the state may perform. The result is a less clear, somewhat ambivalent image of the state (Crook, Pakulski and Waters, 1992; pp. 79-105).

    These social, cultural and economic features of late modern society, sketched here only briefly, are an important context within which to understand the changes in policing and security arrangements for the last fifteen years in many western European countries, including the Netherlands. Many of these societies are faced with high levels of crime, widespread feelings of insecurity and complex, often contradictory expectations...

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