Violence against those that care and protect in the Netherlands
Perhaps it is misleading for a blogpost that presents the findings of a research project on violence against public security, care and safety officials to start with once again repeating a bit of good news that is often overlooked: overall, violent crime has steadily decreased in Western society.
In the Netherlands, a similar picture can be painted: (lethal) violence has been declining. And while we are continuously confronted in the Dutch media with violence against those who care and protect, there is no data that suggests that violence against public security, care and safety officials has increased. The most recent figures, admittedly from 2015, show that the numbers have remained steady for some time.
It must be pointed out that the Covid-19 crisis may very well result in an increase. The introduction of a curfew in January has led to violent riots on the streets and, on March 10th, a police officer was severely injured by two young adolescents when he approached them for being out on the street after curfew hour. A recent publication looking at public non-police enforcement officers (in Dutch: buitengewoon opsporingsambtenaren) also showed a higher incidence rate of aggression and physical violence against these officers since the start of the crisis. But crises have this effect, and previous research indicates that figures tend to return to pre-crisis levels instead of plateauing at the higher level.
Having said all that, neither academics, policy makers nor public organizations employing security, care and safety officials should be satisfied with stable numbers of violence. Policies and programs need to be put in place to decrease them further, although without the illusion that they will ever be zero.
Together with fellow researchers at PLATO and Ockham IPS, we performed a literature review of research that examined violence against public officials in the Netherlands in the 2006-2020 period. Results of this review were presented to two focus groups consisting of both academic and professional experts in the field. We looked at incidence rates, reasons for aggressive and violent behavior, and possible solutions proposed in the literature.
As already mentioned, the incidence rates showed an overall stabilization of incidents, though the availability of data was not consistent for all categories (for example, the data on police officers was much more extensive), and the last comprehensive review in the Netherlands was done in 2015. However, the research showed that more than half of the officials who care and protect deal with violence each year. Additionally, specific people or groups experience more violence committed against them, such as officials working in public transportation, those working in the ambulance, police officers and bailiffs.
We then examined to what extent aggressive and violent behavior is related to larger societal trends, to demographic, contextual, and psychological characteristics, and finally to the interaction between aggressor and victim. When looking at societal trends, there is somewhat of a paradox, because the data doesn’t actually support the claim that there is a rise in violence. Hence, studies that link societal changes to more violence are trying to explain a phenomenon that doesn’t actually exist.
There is evidence of temporary surges in violence, which can potentially be explained by cutbacks in the social and healthcare domains, or by specific societal crises, with the former having a more long-lasting effect than the latter. And there are indications that some societal trends at least slow down the decline in violence. But overall, these interrelationships seem to be underexplored in the current literature.
Demographically speaking, the perpetrators committing violence against public officials are most likely young males. Contextual factors include the area (e.g.: places where leisure activities are held involving alcohol, or confined places without a clear exit) and time of day that violence occurs, and a greater incidence of interaction with the public. The experience of the public official also plays a contextual role: the more experienced the official, the less overall violence or at least reported violence. Psychologically speaking, mental illness on the side of the perpetrators also plays a role, as well as alcohol intoxication/dependence.
On the side of the victims, previous negative experiences in regard to violence do seem to play a role in how the victims perceive a situation: if a someone has experienced violence committed against them in the past, they may actually inadvertently engage in behavior that makes it more likely violence will be committed against them in the future. This means the interaction of potential perpetrators and victims is important to consider, which opens up avenues of training behavior of the public officials to lower the chance of violence during interactions.
The knowledge obtained from this research project will provide tools to develop policy interventions to (further) decrease violence against those that care for and protect us. With better registration of incidents, the effectiveness of these interventions can then be evaluated more thoroughly. An important step that is still underexplored to this date.