Military discipline and police discretion are historically and theoretically incompatible Foto: Koninklijke Marechaussee

Military discipline and police discretion are historically and theoretically incompatible

Belonging to the Dutch military limits your civil rights and can negatively impact individual discretion within policing. Both history and theory suggest trouble where the military and the police force meet.

Policing in context

In a time of growing public distrust in the government resulting in large-scale protests, the Dutch National Police is struggling with its workload. When the National Police is unable to perform its tasks, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (Dutch military police, RNLM) steps in. The RNLM therefore functions as the Dutch government's ‘strategic reserve’. It assists by deploying either groups of officers or its riot control unit, which has specially trained officers equipped with extra weapons. Historically, deploying the military police ‘to tackle’ civilians has always been criticised; a recent example is when a video posted on social media appeared to show the deployment of tanks during the Dutch farmers’ protests in The Hague back in 2022.

Military status

The RNLM is a centrally-run organisation, and the prioritisation of tasks and decision-making concerning the deployment of officers occurs on a national level. In addition to domestic policing, the RNLM performs military tasks abroad. RNLM officers therefore have specific military status and training. This means that, by law, their civil rights are limited compared to those of civilians and regular police officers: for example, they can be ordered to work overtime, they are forbidden from participating in strikes and refusing orders and they can be ordered to take on certain jobs or perform tasks that involve the use of force. Violating the rules or refusing orders can result in military disciplinary sanctions such as fines, prison sentences and even dishonourable discharge. Although the rationale behind this military status stems from the government’s need to have guaranteed military availability in conflict situations (i.e. ‘external security’ abroad), it appears that the RNLM’s main task nowadays is domestic policing (‘internal security’) relating to civilians rather than enemy combatants. This does not require military status, hierarchy, discipline, training or equipment as a matter of course.

Military status and domestic policing

The military status of RNLM officers can have unforeseen implications for the performance of policing tasks. One example is during large-scale protests when orders from higher up (‘Disperse the crowds, now!’) overrule individual decision-making in an operational setting (‘Let’s engage in one last dialogue’). This while individual decision-making is a key part of modern, community-oriented policing, as individual and situation-specific discretionary power distinguishes a police officer from a machine that mechanically applies the law. Military status and discipline have the problematic potential to limit this key aspect of policing, as is recognised by RNLM officers.* Unfortunately, while international academic literature on police militarisation paints a grim picture of disproportionate and excessive use of force against civilians, resulting in growing public distrust of the police force, this topic is not yet on the agenda for policymakers or Dutch academics.

Military discipline and police discretion: policy considerations

While these risks are based on historic examples and foreign academic literature, they do pose a potential problem for modern Dutch policing.

On the other hand, limiting individual discretionary police power in favour of military discipline could be beneficial as long as this is the intended outcome of evidence-based policy in specific situations; for example, when there is a need for fast, decisive policing in crisis situations. Similarly, limiting the civil rights of soldiers in conflict situations also makes sense, as it would not be desirable for soldiers to go on strike in the middle of a war. However, limiting discretionary power and officers’ civil rights within a domestic policing context would be more difficult to justify – especially without a conscious debate or adequate empirical knowledge about its foreseen and unforeseen consequences.

In a time of growing public distrust, as reflected by more large-scale protests, paired with the military police's increasingly domestic role, we need to engage in a meaningful debate about the role and position of military personnel in domestic policing. The time to launch that debate should have been during the roundtable sessions and call for essays ahead of the recent publication of the white paper by the Dutch Ministry for Justice and Security. While the white paper presents a new development agenda for policing in the Netherlands, it unfortunately fails to address the potential problem described in this blog, nor does it restructure military involvement in policing regarding the use of force. The white paper does, however, propose extending the authority to use force to a broader group of government officials.

When parliament discusses the content and outcomes of this development agenda, it needs to address whether or not the strategic advantages of RNLM officers’ military legal status (in the context of domestic policing) outweigh the drawbacks in terms of policing quality and the use of force.

*The author of this blog post is affiliated with the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden Law School as an external PhD candidate. As part of his ongoing research into the use of force by RNLM officers, he has held multiple focus groups and conducted expert interviews with RNLM officers.


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