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Climate debate: there’s a world to be won

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Climate debate: there’s a world to be won

The recent climate demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion unleashed much discussion and emotions – also within the Netherlands Police organization. This prompted the Netherlands Police Academy to organize a debate with specialists and experiential experts in this area. Here is a report of this debate about a pressing and highly topical issue.

"When the world is on fire, you may feel the pinch of your uniform." This aphorism is a fitting expression of the questions at the centre of the first part of the debate. In his introduction, Teun-Pieter de Snoo of the Netherlands Police Academy’s Centre of Knowledge on People in Organizations marked out the contours of the debate: "We want to pass on a liveable world to the generations to come."

What must happen for, by, and in the police organization to bring that about? What message does it give if we crush demonstrations for the environment, only to let serious environmental offences pass, because we have too few police officers? Do we hide, yet again, behind abstract policy documents full of good intentions? Or do we concretely evolve to meet the new threats that are coming our way? The Nethterlands Police are the guardians of our safety and security. "And the greatest danger of all for our safety and security is that we will die out due to environmental disasters", De Snoo warned the attendees.

Civil disobedience

Amir Niknam feels solidarity with the message of Extinction Rebellion. The Police Officer repeatedly took part in the blockades of the A12 motorway – though of course he was careful not to break the law or hinder fellow police officers on duty. In an interview with the Trouw newspaper, a column on the police intranet, and via social media, Niknam explained why climate issues also matter to the police. In Niknam’s view, the Netherlands Police is being torn in different directions: torn, for instance, between enforcing public order and guarding public safety. And between taking a neutral position and wanting to be there for each and everyone. 

It is important to engage in the debate and to stay connected, especially given the current staffing shortages. During the debate, Niknam explained how his previous opinion had changed. This was due to a call from a special ambassador to the United Nations.

Niknam now believes that civil disobedience is inevitable if we are to prevent fatal damage to the environment. After all, it may otherwise be too late. Niknam fully understands that these kinds of views may feel uncomfortable for police officers. It felt uncomfortable for him too at first. But it really is vital, and at the core of our democracy.

Political dilemmas

Tolga Koklu, Deputy Chief Constable of the The Hague Police Unit, recognizes Niknam’s story. Several police officers have approached him about this. What on earth are you all doing, you guys making the decisions? How am I supposed to explain this to my friends and acquaintances? Of course the police handling of the demonstration on the A12 motorway conjures up certain images. But that is certainly not the full story, Koklu points out. There were all sorts of political dilemmas involved, as well as the individual considerations of the mayor and the Public Prosecution Service, who are also involved in decision-making.

Moreover, the Netherlands Police must not and will not deal differently with any of the 2100 demonstrations they have to handle each year. It does not matter what text is on the banners. Police Officers determine as clearly as possible when they should provide assistance, set boundaries, or intervene. Each time afresh – so also on the A12. Koklu expressed appreciation for the way the Netherlands Police managed to stay in touch with protesters, even in these circumstances. Behind the scenes there were always constructive conversations with Extinction Rebellion, with mutual understanding. Further, the Deputy Chief Constable pointed to the various desks/possibilities there are for Police Officers who are afraid they will not be able to act with sufficient professional impartiality at certain demonstrations because of conscientious objections.

Firmly behind the rule of law

Guus Meershoek, Professor of the History of Policing at the Netherlands Police Academy provided some insights into how the theme of the debate had evolved over the course of our organization’s history. Over the past forty years we have grown into a police organization that is firmly integrated into society, that wants to be in the midst of it. This is a great improvement, but it does call for constant fine-tuning, and that simply needs a lot of time. In his view, the police essentially cannot be neutral. It must stand firm for the rule of law, and the civilized course of a demonstration is an inherent part of that rule of law. In conclusion, Meershoek pointed out that police deployment in cases of civil disobedience is by no means a new phenomenon. And the same goes for police officers with conscientious objections. This was also an issue in the 1980s, for instance, during demonstrations against the nuclear power plant in Dodewaard. So for many years there has been space in the police organization for discussion on such dilemmas.

Breakdown of society

The second half of the debate focused on the consequences of climate change for policing. Patrick van der Broeck, former Chairman of Water Authority Board Limburg gave a short exposé on the natural disaster that hit the province of Limburg in 2021. Within a very short time there was a huge amount of rainfall: twenty buckets full per square meter led to the complete breakdown of society. This meant an almost impossible task for providers of emergency assistance. Van der Broeck was joined at the debating table by Ingelou Sybrandij (of the Police Services Centre’s Sustainability Hub), Gert Veurink (Deputy Chief Constable of the Oost-Nederland Police Unit and National Lead for Environmental Matters) and police employee Marleen Haage who was a candidate for GroenLinks-PvdA in the national elections in November 2023 and is now a member of the Lower House. 

Thorny issues in practice

Gert Veurink said that it was only in recent years that the problems of the environment have been clearly on the agenda of the Netherlands Police organization. And now at long last we have developed a strategic plan. It includes, among other things, the stipulation that there should be two environmental officers per frontline policing team. But in practice, things often don’t work out quite that way. Staffing shortages mean that little has come of this ambition so far. "Where do our priorities lie?", Veurink asked: "On confiscating illegal fireworks, or tackling companies that wreak irreparable environmental damage?" The national lead advocated a long-term vision. "What will happen if there are major water or fuel shortages? How will criminals step up and take advantage of the openings that arise? Scenarios like this will impact policing, so we have to prepare for them."

Emotional discussions

"The Netherlands Police organization aims to reduce its CO2 emissions by 60%", Ingelou Sybrandij explained. "But it’s not an easy process. Some people have reservations about switching to an electric vehicle fleet, for instance: will an electric car keep going during a chase? Absolutely!", she answers. "And the fact that they’re so quiet increases the chance of catching the offenders." The police have appointed climate ambassadors, but their colleagues currently see them more as an elitist club. Do something useful, they often hear. 

Even a simple matter like stopping using plastic coffee cups prompts emotional debates. Environmental measures can drive colleagues apart. "This makes it difficult for managers to get everyone on board and to set boundaries. It’s above all a matter of taking things one step at a time and persevering", Sybrandij concluded. The Police Climate Security Network (Netwerk Politie Klimaatveiligheid) has a valuable role in leading the way.

Five minutes to midnight

"People simply don’t fully grasp the consequences of climate disaster", Marleen Haage responded. "But as far back as 1980 it was already five minutes to midnight." She finds it telling that the national Security Agenda devotes not a single word to the environment. "The government does not protect its citizens from major polluters, and in Haage’s view the police also fall short here. Just one example: if there’s a murder or rape, we immediately set up a Large-Scale Investigations Team. But if a multinational like DuPont causes untold environmental harm, we stand idly by and watch. There are huge gains to be made in this area.​"

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