Police Reform in the Netherlands: A Dance between National Steering and Local Performing

By Cachet, Lex; Marks, Peter | German Policy Studies, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Police Reform in the Netherlands: A Dance between National Steering and Local Performing


Cachet, Lex, Marks, Peter, German Policy Studies


1 Introduction

Since the Second World War the Dutch police system has been the subject of many debates, finally resulting in a new Police Act in 1993. However, the debate did not stop and has even intensified since 2005. The debates on how to organize, steer and control the police had technical, political and administrative dimensions. Elements of (perceived) insecurity have created a growing and maybe sometimes unreasonable pressure on police performance the last couple of years (Boutellier 2002, Terpstra and Van der Vijver 2006). The managerial/administrative problems of size and efficiency together with the rising public demand on performance made the government, politicians and the police search for answers, one of them being police reform. The Dutch police reform has been a constant and precarious balancing of power and authority; a balance between the distribution of power and authority within and around the police, between actors, or from one actor to another. What autonomy is to be given to partners, what freedom and control is required in decision-making, what level of discretion do partners get in decisions and more importantly in actions, who is responsible or can be hold accountable? These questions have become even more relevant the last decade, due to integrated local safety policies having been developed in which several different elements of safety issues are tackled by more and different partners. The police reform is about give and take, it is about empowerment and disempowerment (Savage 2007), or in other terms it is about direction and discretion. Government has "a special role within society to regulate actions of public interest" (Schnabel 2001: 17). She directs partners what (safety) issues to tackle and how, i.e. she sets the course how to reach desired social outcomes. Governments cannot handle everything themselves and they have to rely upon other actors, sectors and other governmental layers, and these should be involved in the policy formation and/or implementation (e.g. network management). By defining regulations the government can provide elbowroom--also policy freedom--to partners, or she can put limitations to their freedom. This discretion can be necessary for proper policy execution. All in all, discretion has to do with 'how' the government goes about her business.

The debates about the reform have been about the national government wanting to direct its local and regional partners more, while at the same time holding on to local performance. This leads us to our research question: What developments have taken place the last decades in the Dutch police systems with regard to the organization of the police and the way the police are steered and democratically controlled within a continuously evolving social and political context, and what assessment can be made of the centralizing and decentralizing tendencies within the system?

To be able to answer this research question we will describe the current police system in The Netherlands in section two, and in the third section we will put the police reform in a historical perspective to show the successive waves of reform.

As mentioned before the debate about police reform has intensified again in 2005. We will describe in section four what this reform discussion is about, and what the implications are of this recent police reform discussion. Direction and discretion can be substitutes in some respects but also complementary in other respects. Central and local steering for instance do not necessarily have to collide. They can also strengthen each other. We will use (elements of) direction and discretion to be able to assess the Dutch police reform in section five. In the last section some concluding remarks follow.

2 The current police system in the Netherlands

The Netherlands are a parliamentary democracy with a separation of powers between the legislature (parliament), the executive (government) and the judiciary (the courts). …

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