'I want to know everything about them' PsyCops, no-go zones and the militarization of public space

9 minutes to read
Paul Mutsaers


To my knowledge, there are not a lot of places in the Netherlands were police never venture afoot—“no-go zones” in popular lexicon—but if I were asked to name one area that comes close, it would be Amsterdam West. It was in that area that a group of Moroccan-Dutch juveniles had marched to the police station, where I conducted a part of my fieldwork, to protest against police discrimination[i]. In the words of the station chief, who was interviewed in 2012 and talked about some of the events that led to the march:

'Within a month after I started, in March 2007, I had a letter on my desk signed by 70 Moroccan juveniles who complained about police discrimination, intimidation, violence, abuse of power, you name it. It was sent to me, to the mayor, to the Chief of Police and the National Ombudsman. This was one of the public relations issues [I was confronted with] when I started.’

From communication to PsyCops

Five years later, not long before I started my fieldwork, police-minority relations had not yet improved, as about 60 Moroccan-Dutch juveniles marched to the police station to rally against officers who they considered to be racists. When I talked with police officers about the march, it struck me that some of them felt personally threatened. This had to do partly with the fact that two of the organizers of the protest march were suspected at that time of terrorist activities, which made the event particularly grim. In addition, officers felt intimidated as a consequence of the architecture of the police station, which, befitting a post-bureaucratic organization, was an open and windowed space in which it was very hard to hide from the outside world. The fact that many of the juveniles were peeking through the windows and locked their gaze while pointing at specific officers brought no relief.

Arguably, many of the juveniles suffered from "legal alienation"; the law and its enforcers were foreign and unfair to them. 

The situation was alarmingly bad. Social restoration was clearly needed and it was plain to the senior officers at the station that stopgap solutions would not suffice. The dossier was entrusted to a project leader, Superintendent Carl, who wrote a proposal to the Ministry of Security and Justice to apply for a budget for his plans[ii]. In an interview Carl told me how thrilled he was, as he had just received the news that his proposal was approved and that the Ministry was willing to pay his department a large sum of money to carry out the plan. In the interview he underscored what he thought was the main problem: police-minority relations. These were below par, he argued, which made it very difficult to establish meaningful contact with minority groups and to talk with them about criminality, social problems, disorderly behaviour, and the like. Carl and his associates were thus right when they urged their colleagues that something needed to be done about police-minority relations. But what did they do?

At first, Carl told me that he deemed police-minority communication to be the main problem. This problem was not dyadic but had to do, he argued, with the illiteracy of many people in the neighbourhood. He told me that many could not read the brochures, flyers or digital newsletter that the police distribute every now and then to inform people about security issues, crime prevention and so on (‘many people in our district are completely illiterate, anno 2012’). During the interview, however, his focus shifted from language to a much broader spectrum, including culture, politics, religion, kinship and so on. Gradually, miscommunication was no longer framed as problem of people’s language skills but of their different place in and view on the world:

‘I want to know everything about them. Knowledge is power, also in this case. So, for instance, I have a Moroccan “target group”. I want to know: where do their parents come from, exactly? Which specific areas? What kind of religion do they adhere to? Who has contact with whom?’ (my emphasis).

In a document that I accessed through my research (the Plan of Action) it was stated that intelligence needed to be gathered about kinship ties, political affiliations, cultural values, religion, race, gender, age and so forth. Such information was deemed necessary to determine what ‘lines of persuasion’ were to be followed to ‘psychologically influence target groups.’ In the interview, Carl told me about how he discovered the, in his eyes, most expedient method to achieve such persuasion and psychological influence:

‘So I was thinking, in my own network (I have a substantial network), who do I know, who can I get around the table to brainstorm with me about how to take up this challenge? At a conference I bumped into someone who worked for a communication agency and I said to him: “who are you working for, normally?” And he said “The military. They have a lot of communication targets.”… And I said “who are your contacts there?” “major [name],” he said. So I became acquainted with this major and he told me about PSYOPS, which made me very enthusiastic...The Dutch military has a target group [doelgroep] in Tora Bora, Afghanistan,’ he continued. ‘And Carl here has a target group in [name of the neighbourhood] in Amsterdam West. Simply replace Tora Bora with, you know, I thought “that is perfect.” I was eager and said [to the major] “can you tell me more about it?” So, what PSYOPS does, itis a micro-analysis [haarvatanalyse, literally translated as “capillary analysis”] of a particular area. They go from macro to micro… And they make a network analysis.’

PSYOPS is a militarization of inner space. 

PSYOPS—psychological operations—is far from uncontroversial. It is used in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan to win the hearts and minds of the local populace. Critical scholars have described it as a military strategy that weaponizes information and aims at ‘cultural symbols that elicit intense emotional reactions in audiences that are important within the target society (achievement, power, affiliation, intimacy, unity) to express the desired message’ (Anderson 2011:  217). It has been called a “militarization of inner space” as it targets people’s psychic and emotional life (Orr 2004). Obviously, the deployment of PSYOPS by a state actor for internal affairs cannot be though of lightly, something of which Carl was very much aware:

‘Imagine the headlines: police work together with the military in warzone…[meaning: Amsterdam West].’

When PSYOPS—which was playfully changed into PSYCOPS—was introduced to the police team by another project leader, the audience was advised not to google the original term, for it would immediately direct them to Nazi Germany within ten hits, it was said (which was not true; the U.S. army, however, came out on top of the search). To make PSYCOPS operational, the mayor of Amsterdam had to submit a Defense Support of Civil Authorities request to the Ministry of Defence (in Dutch: bijstandsaanvraag militaire steunverlening in het kader van het openbaar belang). 

Two requests were submitted (for two different neighbourhoods) and approved, which allowed the 1st Civil Military Interaction Command of the Dutch army to assist police officers in Amsterdam in PSYOPS methods.  The defense support group consisted of a tactical PSYOPS team, a target audience analyst, a culture analyst, a tactical coordinator and a specialist in behavioral influence. They trained a selection of police officers in what is called the Target Audience Analysis Process, a defense method that is used to select, study and exert influence upon specified target groups (doelgroepen, ethnically defined). In the report that was published—but never made publically available—the words PSYOPS and PSYCOPS were carefully avoided [iii].

The afterlife 

Unfortunately, I was not able to study the implementation phase of PSYCOPS. However, the “public afterlife” of my police ethnography yielded some additional insights (Abu-Lughod 2016; Fassin 2015). As an advocate of a “public anthropology of policing” (Mutsaers, Simpson and Karpiak 2015; Mutsaers forthcoming) I felt it to be my duty to go public with my police ethnography after it was finished. The public defense of my dissertation (June 12, 2015) served as an occasion for the communication department of my university to publish a press release (June 4) to promote my work and to enhance its publicity. 

The press release did its job. My work moved to the forefront of public debate on police discrimination in the Netherlands. The press release went viral in the media and within a day, I was approached by reporters from almost all national newspaper agencies in the Netherlands. All covered the dissertation in articles, some of them appearing as front page articles or editorials. I was approached to perform on national talk shows, to conduct radio interviews, and the dissertation was widely discussed in popular magazines and on social media. The Dutch Minister of Security and Justice had to answer in parliament to dissertation-related questions submitted by the Socialist Party. 

A spokesperson of the National Police nudged me to use less critical wording in my public performances.

I pay much more attention to the public afterlife of my ethnography elsewhere (for instance, in my forthcoming book Police Unlimited); here it suffices to say that my disclosure of project PSYCOPS to a broader public turned out to be very upsetting to the National Police (NP) and the Amsterdam Police, which had so far managed to maximize police discretion. A spokesperson of the NP called me from The Hague, where the NP has its headquarters, the same day my university had sent out the press release. He called to share his instituted opinion of the dissertation as an exaggerated description of the Dutch police. While some aspects described in it were said to have a ring of truth, others could be reduced to tenderly held presuppositions about the police, he argued. Mostly, he nudged me to use a softer, less critical wording in my media performances in order not to blow things out of proportion. When I asked him to be more specific, he mentioned PSYCOPS as an example. I remember that I was impressed by the pressure that was put on me during the phone call (and afterwards), but I kept arguing that the anthropological method did not allow me to drop emic terms whenever they happened to be politically inconvenient.

PSYCOP remained a topic of interest in the media. On June 12, the Dutch quality newspaper Trouw published an article in which a PSYCOPS project leader was cited, saying that

‘PSYCOPS improves our contacts with diverse groups in society… I don’t see why that is discrimination. The police are not only there to catch crooks; they are also here for prevention. For this, we need the public. The beauty of soldiers is that they are used to look with an open mind. They drive their tanks in foreign land and need to figure out the cultural codes.’

Her intentions may have been genuinely good, but that is not the issue. The issue is, after Cicourel (1968) and Becker (1967), that police definitions of the situation cannot be seen as neutral descriptions of existing problems. In fact, sometimes the solutions that are proposed turn out to be part of the problem. Bringing in the military to deal with migrant groups on Dutch soil may not improve contacts; it may make them worse, especially when militarized psychological techniques are used that are easily interpreted as a form of manipulation, even indoctrination. That not everyone did indeed share the “police definition of the situation” became clear from the public debates. Outrage and indignation were expressed on social media. In addition, the newspapers quoted experts such as a Dutch professor in military ethics, who had stated that PSYCOPS ‘is not something you would want from the police, which is supposed to be keeping order’ (prof. Désirée Verweij in the same Trouw article). Despite these critical voices, the NP simply repeated the good intentions in a press release: ‘The basic assumption of the project is that every group has its own codes, rules, key persons, needs and sensitivities. The police takes these into account in order to improve cooperation’.

A few days later, I was called by a strategic advisor of the NP. He advised me to tone down my public voice. He gave me an off-the-record warning that the local authorities in Amsterdam were about to bring me to court for my (allegedly misplaced) critique. The words of my interlocutor may have been an empty threat or based on hearsay, but is also likely that the public outcry in the Hague that erupted a few days later, had changed the political winds and made judicial proceedings untimely. I was never brought to court. Another crisis had already come to dominate the scene: the chokehold death of the Aruban Mitch Henriquez, caused by five police officers at an outdoor festival in The Hague, which literally set The Hague on fire (Mutsaers and van Nuenen forthcoming). 


[i] Between 2008 and 2013 I carried out an ethnographic study on police discrimination in the Netherlands, for which I joined officers “on the beat” and in the station for about one year, conducted more than 80 interviews and thousands of informal conversations, and asked about twenty officers to keep a diary on their experiences with police discrimination.

[ii]  It goes without saying that all names are fictitious.

[iii] It was given to me by a journalist who had retrieved it on the basis of the Dutch Freedom of Information Act (Wet Openbaarheid Bestuur).