A documentary about discrimination within the ranks of Dutch police has sparked a national conversation in the Netherlands about racism, with many officers and others hoping it will finally bring about change.
The Blue Family, or De Blauwe Familie in Dutch, discusses a culture of bullying and fear in the national police force. It premiered on Dutch television Monday, timed around the second anniversary this week of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police.
“There is no way back,” Peris Conrad, one of the officers featured in the film, told The Associated Press.
Born in the former Dutch colony Surinam, Conrad dreamed of being a police officer as a child. He moved to the Netherlands when he was 4 years old, and after a stint in the military, became a security guard.
While in that job, he had an encounter with police officers who were looking for information about crime in the Surinamese community. The officers encouraged him to join the force himself, which he did, ultimately spending 26 years in service.
But Conrad, who is Black, recalled how in his first year at the police academy, colleagues hung a picture of him with cell bars drawn on it. The caption read: “Our monkey in a cage.”
Police leaders received an early showing of the film and promised action.
“The personal stories make it painfully clear how great the impact is (of the racism), and how long it will last,” Police Chief Henk van Essen said in a statement. “We all have something to do; not just executives, but all 65,000 colleagues. Because safety outside starts with safety inside.”
“There is no room for racism and discrimination in our police,” Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgöz told Dutch talk show RTL Boulevard.
The Dutch parliament voted by a large majority this week to place police leaders under stricter supervision, citing the suicides in recent years of three officers who had complained about discrimination.
Last year, a Dutch newspaper published messages from police group chats that showed officers making racial slurs and joking about killing non-white people. “One less Turk” one officer wrote, in response to the slaying of a 16-year-old girl who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in her high school’s bicycle shed.
As in other countries, the problems in the Netherlands have a long history. A 1998 report by the Ministry of Internal Affairs said discrimination was driving out police officers with a “migration” background — defined as having at least one parent born abroad.
While 24% of the Dutch population meets that definition, only 14% of the police force does. The National Police Corps employs some 65,000 people, and around 40,000 work as officers.
Margot Snijders has spent 30 years on the national force, including several years working on diversity and inclusion efforts. After years of frustration, she took a step back from that role.
“People don’t trust us, and they don’t want to work for us,” Snijders, who also appears in The Blue Family, told The Associated Press.
George Floyd’s death in the U.S. two years ago prompted protests of racial injustice in the Netherlands and around the world. Controle Alt Delete, an advocacy organization that pushes for better law enforcement practices, wanted to highlight problems within the Dutch police force.
The group brought on board filmmakers Maria Mok and Meral Uslu to direct and produce the documentary, which was backed by Dutch public broadcaster KRO-NCRV.
Problems with racism, as well as discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQ community, are widespread and systemic within police ranks, said Jan Struijs, the chairperson of the country’s largest police union.
Struijs also took part in the film. “I hope this is a historic turning point,” he told the AP.
The first article of the country’s constitution, which is displayed on posters in every police station, outlaws discrimination against any group. The Dutch consider themselves to be some of the most open-minded, tolerant people in the world.
There’s been no significant criticism of the The Blue Family, those involved in the documentary welcomed the response to it.
“I have been saying the same things for years, only now do they get a positive reaction,” Snijders said.
The Dutch police union is calling for better mental health counseling for officers and more accountability for ones who make racist jokes.
Conrad sees a need for widespread change, both in policy and leadership.
In the meantime, he’s forbidden his 20-year-old son from joining the force.
“I don’t want him to experience this,” he said.