Blurring the line between the police and the military Photo: KMarMagazine / sergeant-1 Mike de Graaf

Blurring the line between the police and the military

Should the armed forces have a role in public order management in a domestic context? Recent riots in the Netherlands in response to the curfew have sparked a debate on this issue

Riots in the Netherlands

The installation of a curfew in the Netherlands on 23 January led to large-scale unrest. For a few nights in a row, riots broke out in cities and towns all over the country, resulting in vandalism and looting. The perpetrators seemed to be a mixed group of bored youngsters, conspiracy thinkers, hooligans, and supporters of the extreme right.

The Dutch police had its hands full trying to restore order and the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, a police organisation with military status, provided support. For a few days, it was unclear whether both organisations had enough capacity to restore order, and the mayor of Eindhoven even stated we may be heading for civil war. Fortunately, after a few days the riots died down. But the debate on what could have happened if order had not been restored continues.


In the words of former US general Richard Myers: ‘If you call it a war, you think of people in uniform as being the solution’. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in the wake of the riots some politicians asked for the deployment of the armed forces to support the police and restore order.

As we know from securitisation theory, words matter. It states that security threats are socially constructed and come into being through a discursive process that dramatises and prioritises these threats. In recent years we have seen declarations of a ‘war on drugs’, a ‘war on terror’ and even last year a ‘war on COVID 19’. This has led to far-reaching government measures limiting civil liberties, in some cases including the use of the armed forces for domestic police tasks.

The Netherlands is traditionally reluctant when it comes to a domestic role for the armed forces and in this case as well, the proposal did not get sufficient support in parliament.

Civil Military Relations

To understand this reluctance, we should look into the subject of Civil Military Relations (CMR), which investigates relations between the military and society. Several models for CMR can be distinguished, among them a democratic regime, a military regime (where the armed forces rule the country) and a police regime (where the armed forces develop towards a constabulary force). In a democratic regime, there is usually a clear distinction between the organisations responsible for internal security (the police), and external security (the armed forces). Only in very special, ‘last resort’, circumstances, will the armed forces assist civilian authorities, for example in the case of disasters or other crises.

Blurring the line between the police and the military

Recent years have seen a rise in the use of the armed forces in a domestic context, especially in case of transborder security threats, when the police were overburdened or a more robust performance by the authorities was deemed necessary. Recent examples in the Netherlands include the use of army search teams in counter-drugs operations and the use of armed forces materiel to block off the area around parliament during protests by farmers.

In the international context, Western armed forces have been increasingly deployed in stability operations in post-conflict areas. In such situations, there is usually a security gap after fighting has stopped, but before civilian authorities are capable of providing security. Armed forces may then perform police tasks such as restoring public order, crowd and riot control, and stability policing. This phenomenon has been defined as a constabularisation of the armed forces. The performance of police tasks in stability operations might make the armed forces better equipped to perform in a domestic context.

On the police side, a certain militarisation seems to be taking place. This is particularly visible in the United States but can be found in Europe as well. Examples are centralising tendencies in the police, the use of more robust gear and means, and the development of a more military mindset. This is stimulated by the use of war metaphors for police work by the authorities.

Intermediary force

Some Western countries, including the Netherlands, have an intermediary or hybrid force in between the armed forces and the police. These ‘gendarmerie-type’ forces – in the Netherlands the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee – combine police and military characteristics and usually perform police tasks related to the security of the State, which require a higher level of robustness than regular (community-related) police tasks. The blurring of internal and external security has led to a fast growth in these gendarmerie-type forces.

On the one hand, one could state that the very existence of gendarmerie-type forces is blurring the clear line between the police and the military and is therefore not fitting in a democratic regime. On the other hand, it does add another step on the escalation ladder. In Belgium, which abolished its gendarmerie-type force in 2001, the armed forces have been deployed on the streets to support the police since the 2016 terrorist attacks. In such situations, it is not always easy to find an exit strategy.

Domestic role of the armed forces

Does this mean that, ideally, the armed forces should not be deployed domestically at all? On the contrary. As we have seen in the past year, the armed forces can play a very useful role in crisis management. Cyber security and the fight against organised crime are other areas where specific capabilities of the armed forces may be very useful. And even in public order management, where a certain restraint is called for, the armed forces could support the civilian authorities. The use of drones for crowd management, logistical support to the police, the guarding of vital infrastructure and even the use of intelligence capabilities ­– these are all things to consider. From a complementarity perspective, and always under civilian control, we should explore the possible contribution of the armed forces to domestic security.

This blog was inspired by an editorial in the ‘Militaire Spectator’ by the same author.


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