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by Peter Moskos

April 23, 2008

A night of fieldwork in Amsterdam

I often wonder why anybody would prefer to crunch numbers than do fun qualitative research.

I'm in Amsterdam right now. I made contact with and successfully gained access to my desired police station tonight (to make a long story short).

I want to compare the attitude toward drugs of Baltimore and Amsterdam police officers. These attitudes are very different. Even the most conservative of Dutch cops thinks that people should be able to purchase and smoke weed in “coffee shops.” No Dutch cop thinks that drug users should rot in prison. Most Dutch cops think that punishment needs to be harsher for dealers of “hard drugs” (crack and heroin).

I meet the chief. He is both friendly and smart. And welcoming to an outside American research he doesn't know. I interview him and some of his main men. Then I ask to talk to some low-level cops, doing the kind of work I did. I am passed around to various police officers and interview them all.

As a cop, I’m impressed with the free coffee machine. It makes much better coffee than the machines they used to have when I did research here 10 years ago in de Pijp.

Next to the coffee machines is a box of free sandwiches. While the cop in me loves free food. I pass on the broodjes. I think it’s strange that the police here make such an effort to keep cops from taking free food outside the police station that they prefer the cops to eat and drink without leaving the police station. Is that a victory?

One police officer asks me if I want to join some plain-clothes officers on their patrol of the Red Light District. Sure, I say. So I do.

The big problem of the area is not drug use or prostitution. Prostitution is legal here. Marijuana and hash can be legally bought in any of many legal “coffee shops.” The big problem of the vice-filled center in this city of sin is, get this, fake-drug dealers.

People who stand on bridges trying to get stupid tourists to buy drugs. Except they don't have drugs. And they might take you into an alley and rob you. It's not much of a crime here to sell baking soda. So it's hard to get rid of these guys. And they really are a terrible P.R. problem for Amsterdam.

So many tourists come here and think, "This city is so overrun with drugs. I mean, there's a drug dealer standing on every corner!" There's not a drug dealer on every corner. But there is a man trying to sell you fake drugs on most bridges in this very small part of the city where all the tourists walk around to do their vice-related slumming tour. (Can you imagine if Baltimore’s Eastern District was a tourist attraction... and it was perceived to represent the whole city?)

These cops, a man and a women, have been on this detail for three months. So all the bad guys know them, uniform or not.
You can see this as the guys look down and slink away when they see the plain-clothed police.

So the cops ask me to walk in front of them so people would proposition me (really, I'm not well known in the Red Light District). So I do. It's raining for the first time in days, so the streets are relatively empty. But after maybe 1/2 an hour, I walk by a man.
He says, "Cocaine?"
I say, "What?"
He says, "You want to buy cocaine, heroin, ecstasy?"
That’s it. That’s what they need for the arrest.
I say, "How much?"
He says, "Follow me."
I say, "No thanks." And, using our pre-arranged sign, I take off my hat. I walk away. The officers, close behind and in listening range, make the arrest.

This is such small-scale stuff for a Baltimore cop. But it’s been years since I’ve been part of the action. Hell, I never even worked plain-clothes. My heart is beating fast as I enjoy the small surge of adrenaline. It’s fun to be back in the game, even if in a very small way.

These cops have arrested this guy before. He is walked (rather freely, in my opinion) back to the police station. He is treated very politely and very humanly.


The prisoner is guilty of the very minor crime of offering (non) drugs. That’s a 150 euro fine. But he doesn’t have any real drugs on him, except his prescription meds. But he’s also guilty of violating his 3-month banishment order (issued four days ago) for the same crime. By law, he must stay out of the city center. Yes, in Europe, you can still be banished. Now he’ll get (re)offered a place to sleep and social help.

Unlike American police, most Dutch police are happy to offer social help.
“Really? Is that real police work?” I asked.
“Yes, because it helps solve the problem.... Isn’t it better to prevent a crime than make an arrest?” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

2 comments:

Marty said...

"These cops have arrested this guy before. He is walked (rather freely, in my opinion) back to the police station. He is treated very politely and very humanly"

While we may not walk our prisoners back to the station house, I don't see how the rest is unique. My prisoners are always treated politely and humanly.

PCM said...

A lot of it isn't unique. Police are police.

I and my squademates always treated prisoners politely and humanly as well. I don't mean to imply otherwise.

But can you imagine police who aren't judged by arrest statistics? Or police officers in an area with drugs and prostitution in America saying, “Yeah, it’s really easy for us to get information from the public.”?

My comment reflect a basic politeness generally found here between the police and the public (in both directions) that is too often lacking in the United States. For better or for worse, getting locked up in the Netherlands just isn’t as unpleasant of an experience as getting locked up in Baltimore.

And compared with the attitudes toward addicts by many police in Baltimore, there is something particularly humane in Dutch police attitudes toward drug addicts. In Baltimore junkies are too often dehumanized.

In Amsterdam police tell me, "they have a disease." And, "why should he [the addict still] still suffer for a bad choice he made 30 years ago?" And, “If I take away his drugs and [crack] pipe, then he just steals twice as much.” Of course there are fewer addicts in Amsterdam than there are in Baltimore, which may have something to do with it as well.