Police chief Martin Sitalsing: ‘The trick is to approach each other without a conflict immediately arising’

In a light brown jacket and black shirt, police chief Martin Sitalsing (60) walks into the Utrecht restaurant Bunk, a converted church around the corner from the Paardenveld police station. At our request, he is not wearing a uniform, as the conversation is informal. I ask if he should change. No, he laughs, he had already taken that into account this morning. Normally he wears his uniform – “if management doesn’t do it, it widens the gap with implementation” – and it wouldn’t have mattered to him now either. However, his entrance had been a bit different. “When you enter a place in uniform, you always have what I call the Sinterklaas effect. That people look up, say hello, make a comment.”

He also has a question for me. The waitress led him straight to our table before he had said anything. “How did she know I was coming, you told me?” I admit I showed her a picture of him on my phone because I couldn’t see the entrance. Otherwise will he never be recognized? “Sometimes yes yes yes.” Airy: “I have often been portrayed as a chief commissioner with a different skin colour. I think it will stick with a lot of people as a striking combination.”

As well as being responsible for the central Dutch regional force – Flevoland, Utrecht and part of North Holland – Martin Sitalsing has national portfolios, including tackling racism and discrimination. A headache sufferer. The TV documentary was released this year The Blue Family, in which (former) police officers speak poignantly about their experiences with racism in the police. At a debate in De Balie, Sitalsing acknowledged that racism and discrimination are structural problems, “in the systems, recruitment and selection, the way we carry out checks”.

At the same time, he himself is a counterexample, he says now. “I’ve been working for the police for 37 years and I’m having a great time.” And he still knows “thousands of examples” of people “of whatever background” who feel “incredibly valued” in the police force. He sees the police needing 17,000 new ones within five years due to retirements as “a big opportunity to invest in diversity, including visible diversity, especially in the big cities”. Although it is still the case that a quarter of new police officers with a migration background turn their backs on the police. It’s up to him to do something about it.

What, we’ll get to that. An English-speaking waiter asks what we want to eat, Sitalsing chooses the rendang sandwich. He lives in Groningen, isn’t it very far from his work? “No, how big Holland is now. I have a car with a driver, so I can always keep working.” He often lives in an apartment near his sister’s house, he says, in the forest near Zeist. Two of his three daughters study in Utrecht – they study medicine and educational science. His eldest daughter has studied law and, like his wife, works in a management consulting firm. “My son does MBO enforcement, surveillance and security, he wants to go to the police. Nice isn’t it?”

His son, the youngest child, came to them after he and his wife signed up for youth care crisis assistance. “He was five months old, we immediately fell in love with him. He could not return to his biological parents. Well, we said, he’ll stay with us. When he was twelve, he also got our last name.”

We don’t have to

Sitalsing lived in Suriname for the first nine years of his life. There he learned to deal with “many different kinds of people,” he says. Everyone visited his parents. “They were both Hindustani, but my mother with the Islamic faith and my father with the Hindu faith. It didn’t really fit, their parents didn’t like it at all. I think their outlook has become much broader as a result .” How did they resolve this among themselves, I ask. “Actually, don’t do anything about faith anymore,” he chuckles. “My mother still stuck to a number of customs: no pork, traditions around death. My father didn’t like it. I’m not religious myself.”

The family moved to the Netherlands when the eldest son went to college. For Martin, the third child of four, this sort of thing ruined his primary school days. “At my first school in Alphen aan den Rijn I received an LTS advice, lower technical school. Let’s not do that, my parents said. I was in group 8 at another school in Alphen aan den Rijn and then we moved to Zaandam. I went to another school again.” In Zaandam he did a pre-school education. “I actually just landed there for a bit.” He went to study economics with a group of friends. “A couple of sports friends were with the police, that attracted me too. But there was a negative image of the police in the Surinamese community because of the treatment of Surinamese at Zeedijk and in Bijlmer. My mother said: ‘racist organization, never start’.

His mother died young, she was only fifty.

Color outside the lines

After that, he decided to do what he liked: the two-year police academy, not even the four-year police academy, training to be a manager – much to his father’s confusion. He started on the streets of Amsterdam. Later he was to go to the police academy, where he would also meet his wife. Still later, alongside his work, he completed his studies in public administration.

His eldest brother, suffering from depression, took his own life in the early thirties. In TV show The cut off guest Martin Sitalsing said recently that at the time he tended to get back into business quickly, and now he feels his brother may have been given a less fond farewell than he deserved.

The food arrives on the table. “It looks good with those cauliflowers on.” He usually eats lunch during work, he says. “So it’s a bit of a trip that I’m with you now.”

That he has worked for the police for 37 years is not quite right. He was gone for seven years: Between 2012 and 2019, he was director of youth care and psychiatry. Why was that?

“When the national police was formed in 2012, I was police chief in Twente. We went from 26 regional forces to ten units. I was told that after the reorganization I would no longer be Chief of Police. “I don’t need people coloring outside the lines now,” the would-be police chief told me. Did he, did he color outside the lines? “Obviously I was so famous. I was busy hooking up private security guards to the control room so that we could also use their eyes-and-ears function during the night shift. I got the idea that we should hire people with a journalistic background. That sort of thing.” Not to be angry, he left. The next chief constable brought him back.

How will he turn the police into an organization where people will work, regardless of their background? His forehead gets the frown that always appears when he talks in concentration. To start by investing in management, he says. “Police leaders are used to focusing on uniformity. Police teams must be able to function as a unit, trust each other in uncertain situations.” It is now important in those teams to ‘make room for diversity at the same time’. Another point: ‘the resilience of colleagues with a migration background’. Yes, he says: “the standardization and the approach to discrimination is also part of this”. “But I think the most important thing is to approach each other without immediately creating a conflict. Dare to lay down your vulnerability and say: yes, but wait a minute, what you’re saying now is just not funny.”

He cites an example The Blue Familyfrom a black man who – 26 years ago – received a picture of himself behind bars at the police academy with the text “our monkey in a cage(our monkey in a cage). “I just can’t. When I was just starting out myself, you always had to check if there was shoe black on the toilet seat. These kinds of silly jokes are a form of coping, to be able to deal with all the difficult situations outside again. It’s police humor, I recognize. In such a picture, the humor turns into a negative mood towards certain population groups. I think you have to be very careful with that. Because where is the humor?”

Sitalsing is also a well-known police face because he does not shy away from publicity. After George Floyd’s death in 2020, he posted a picture of himself in uniform kneeling on LinkedIn – as American football player Colin Kaepernick did during the American national anthem, in protest against police brutality and racism. It caused quite a stir. Shouldn’t a policeman be neutral, refrain from activism? Nonsense, he thought. “The text in that post was very nuanced. That it may have happened in America, where there is excessive police violence and racism, but that something similar could happen here, as the Dutch police sometimes have to work in complex conditions, and that the police would like to be held accountable for this. That was all it was. I don’t think it’s activist at all’.

Together in the cowshed

He got the most recognition, he says. Just like when he posted a picture on LinkedIn this year with his brother-in-law, who is a farmer. “He in overalls, me in uniform, together in the cowshed.” They wrote that they were afraid people were letting the farmers’ protests get out of hand and called for “connection”. “No one thought it was an activist. Then I think: what affects the average white Dutchman: apparently especially one who kneels.”

He thinks it is important, he says, that the police management makes itself known about social trends that come out of the work. “Choose a position, talk back to society. I think it could happen more often and sometimes even better.”

According to the rotation rules at the police, he will change positions once more before retirement. Will he end his career as the highest commander, head of the national police? “No, no, no. As chief of police, you are closer to politics, which requires other skills. I’m not in the picture either.” Would he do it if asked? “Well… no, I really enjoy what I’m doing now. Sometimes it’s like going through an exciting boys’ book. Someone was recently shot in Almere. So the next day, I join such a team, can I see what happens. It’s wonderful, who experiences that?”

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