‘It’s time to move on’
After nine years, student officer Matthijs Beukema is done. He will start a new job in December.
In 2006, he had to create the job out of nothing. Together with his colleague Maaike Bult, he decided to start focusing on burglaries, bicycle theft, noise, and wanton behaviour.
Drugs were not on the list. Although there are undoubtedly students who use drugs, it is hardly a problem in the student community.
A much larger problem is alcohol. Consumption is extremely high. ‘And that is generally accepted. When you’re a student, you’re an alcoholic, but then you start a family and quit drinking.’
Students do not really pay attention to information campaigns organised by police and municipality. If you want to change things, you have to knock on their doors with a handy man and offer a discounted installation of an anti-burglary strip.
The alcohol sometimes makes students forget to take their neighbours into account. There is not much to be done about that. Beukema thinks that we have to accept disturbances from students if we want them to live among residents.
Beukema has seen a lot of suffering during his time as student officer, including suicides and the murders of Tessa Klaver and Suzanne Martens. But he especially remembers the fire in the Oude Ebbingestraat which killed a 19-year-old female student.
Fortunately, those are the exceptions. He mainly enjoyed his job. ‘You know, what I really enjoyed were all those KEI boards. They managed to make it such a great party every year. What a beautiful time it is, when anything is possible.’
Reading time: 8 minutes (2050 words)
He looks self-assuredly into the camera and continues talking, relaxed, as the photographer makes him pose at the entrance to the University library while students swarm around him. His curly hair and police uniform draw a lot of attention. Almost everyone is looking at him or comes up to talk to him. Beukema has no problems with it; he is used to it by now.
‘Oh, I was so nervous about the camera in the beginning. I really didn’t like it. I was constantly focusing on the lens’, he says, smiling. In 2006, he was the first contact officer for students – more commonly referred to as student officer – in the Netherlands. It was the idea of a district chief who wanted to set up a pilot to work with specific target group. ‘And for some reason, when you combine students and the police, you get attention. We were inundated by radio and TV crews. It was quite weird really, because we hardly even knew what we were going to do.’
But after nine years, he is ready for something else. In December, Beukema will start advising the municipality on event order and safety, such as the arrival of Sinterklaas at the end of this month. ‘I’m done, somebody else can go do it. That’ll be good not just for me, but also for the job.’
Over the past few years he has been present at countless informational markets during introduction weeks, has devised campaigns to convince students to make their homes safer, talked to association boards, visited student housing, intervened during disturbances, and helped students during dramatic incidents. He is a well-known face within the student community and almost every association board knows his name. But it did take a few years before he managed to gain the Groningen students’ trust.
‘I remember one day I got a call from an investigative team. They had arrested a young man for a sex crime. He had apparently done the same thing to a girl that belonged to an association. She had mentioned the crime but never officially reported it, and the detectives were unable to find her. I called the president of the board at the time and said: ‘This is the story. I can’t tell you much more about it, but it concerns this person. Can you help me find her?’ I had her on the phone within fifteen minutes. That’s when I thought: we’re in.’
Beukema has had different partners as a student agent. The past few years it has been Edwin Valkema, and before that he was partnered for four years with Nico Huisman. He started his first year with Maaike Bult – they were immediately thrown in at the deep end: ‘Here’s a target group, come up with something. And that’s pretty difficult. Especially since we weren’t trained for that. We started by mapping out a network and who would be important contacts. University, municipality, colleges, student associations. Then we looked at the problems that exist in the student community.’
Which problems should we tackle in order to make Groningen safer, Beukema and Bult asked themselves. ‘You end up with a few pillars. Such as burglaries, which often affects students; bicycle theft and burglary, where students can be both perpetrator and victim; and disturbances and wanton behaviour.’
Drugs were not on the list. It is hard to measure whether or not drugs are a problem, says Beukema. It might be bad for you physically, but your body is not the jurisdiction of the police. ‘The police and the justice department are addressing it of course, but what kind of disturbance and criminality does that lead to in the student community? There are undoubtedly students who use drugs. And if that happens, there are also dealers. But is that a problem? That is something worth discussing.’
‘Of course we’ve had discussions with rehab facilities. But they’re saying they get very few ‘addiction care requests’ from students. It’s possible of course that students are living quite anonymously, but we do not see it as a problem. It’s also more accepted during your time as a student. This is a time during which basically anything goes. That includes alcohol, which is a much larger problem than drugs. And naturally there is an enormous amount of drinking going on, if you’ll excuse my exaggeration. And that’s accepted. While you’re a student, you’re an alcoholic, but then you start a family and you quit drinking. And that solves the problem as well.’
According to Beukema, there is also monitors within the associations, ensuring a lack of drug use. ‘For example, the boards at Vindicat really frown upon drugs in the association. Undoubtedly it is used there just as it is at other associations and youth groups. But nobody is promoting it, I swear. They also test students during the Kermesse, or they let in drug detection dogs. It is absolutely not tolerated there.’
Do students even listen when the police tells them off? Beukema’s former colleagues would sometimes get frustrated when, after countless anti-burglary campaigns, students still refused to lock their front doors. ‘Awareness campaigns are a bust’, he knows now. ‘Changing awareness is really difficult for everyone. At a certain point, you just have to accept the way it is. We the police and the government don’t like all these burglaries. It negatively affects people’s feeling of safety. And students don’t like it either of course, but most of them don’t do much to prevent it. Of course, that has to do with the fact that they’re adolescents. They’ve got other things on their minds. So when I tell them, they just think: ‘Whatever, dude. It’s nice that you’re telling me.’ But they won’t do anything about it.’
In Beukema’s experience, you have to knock on the students’ doors with a handy man in tow and offer a discount installation of an anti-burglary strip. ‘If you leave a note asking them to contact you, they won’t. You also have to accept that people living in student housing do not have the same feelings of safety that home owners living with their family do. That feeling of safety is what it’s all about, and apparently students feel safe.’
Disturbances caused by students are something we will have to tolerate up to a point if we want students to be able to live among residents, thinks Beukema. ‘That’s simply down to lifestyles that don’t match. Students are smart people and generally quite nice, except it often goes awry when there’s alcohol involved. They forget the rules they agreed upon with their neighbours. But when we come by the next day, they’re very understanding, and promise to do better next time. And most of them do. But this is not a problem we can solve. You have to take things into consideration and make the students aware of having to take their environment into account. But it has to come from both sides. You should also be open to their lifestyle and initiate contact with them.’
One of the student officers’ campaigns certainly garnered a lot of attention. In a final attempt to raise awareness among students, Beukema and his colleagues decided to break the law themselves. They broke into student housing downtown to show the residents how easy it is to steal their laptops, mobile phones, and bicycles.
‘That was a lot of fun and it got a lot of attention from the media. That’s why we do it, of course, even though it is sort of a grey area since it is unlawful entry by the police.’ Walking in uninvited like this is a stunt you can only pull off with students, he thinks. ‘Students love everything. They’re always up for a joke, for a different approach to things.’
But the police and justice department did not share this attitude. The Public Prosecution Service, the mayor, and the unit chief of police had all approved the campaign. But once the storm of media attention arrived, they were taken aback. ‘Everyone had an opinion, on forums and other such places. Afterwards, the higher-ups thought that maybe we shouldn’t do that again. That’s how the world works. Looking back, we study everything so meticulously. The goal has suddenly lost all relevance ‘Was that even allowed?’ I mean, come on.’
A student officer’s job is not just information campaigns, home visits, and drinking coffee with association boards. Beukema has also seen a lot of suffering on the job, including suicides and the murders of Tessa Klaver and Suzanne Martens. ‘That boy falling from the roof in the Tingtangstraat also left quite an impression on me. I was on call and was the first one on the scene. All his friends were still upstairs, completely in shock.’
But he especially remembers the fire in the Oude Ebbingestraat that killed a 19-year-old female student. ‘We got a report of a fire at the V&D and were the first on the scene. Then it turned out it wasn’t the V&D that was on fire, but a Vindicat house. We sheltered the first people coming out of the house at the Coffee Company. That was quite impressive, because we knew quite quickly that there was someone still in the house. But we couldn’t tell any of the friends that came rushing up, nor the occupants or the Vindicat board, because we weren’t one hundred per cent sure.’
The occupant who had brought the girl home had escaped through a skylight. The smoke prevented him from getting her out as well. ‘My colleague Nico went to the hospital to talk to him. He then said that she had been left behind. But the fire department wasn’t able to go inside the house to find her until hours later. Then we had the honourable duty of breaking the news to her year club, her house, and the boys who lived there. I have to tell you, that was one of the shittiest days of my life. I know it’s my job, but that was pretty intense.’
Anything is possible
Fortunately, those are the exceptions. Apart from these instances, Beukema enjoyed his job and the contact with the students. ‘It always went just fine. Of course there was a board here and there who hadn’t quite figured it out. But sometimes the contact is so great that it’s a shame that there’s a new board a year later. And we’ve done fun projects. Burglaries still happen. But perhaps there would have been a lot more if we hadn’t been doing this.’
‘You know what I really enjoyed? All those KEI boards. They managed to make it such a great party every year. Or a Vindicat lustrum. Sometimes I would think, if only I were fifteen years younger. What a great time that is. A time in your life when basically anything is possible. Isn’t that great? Life should always be like that.’
‘We’ve done fun projects’, says Beukema. Like the time they broke into houses themselves, went hunting for stolen traffic signs or inspected houses.
In cooperation with the Public Prosecution Service, the officers provided the students with the free Lojack software. This is software that could be used to track down stolen laptops. But the students were not interested. They forgot to install and register the programme.
Officers Matthijs and Nico pose triumphantly, surrounded by traffic signs. In a one-time deal, students could hand them in without being fined.
The police was sick of students not listening to them. So sick in fact that they decided to break the law themselves by breaking into student houses. That campaign caused quite a national uproar. ‘What an incredibly stupid thing. Now every burglar knows they just need to dress up as a police officer and carry a few anti-burglary flyers in order to break in somewhere.’
The original plan was a follow-up to the burglary campaign of 2013. But the municipality hijacked that idea and gave it their own twist: they were handing out twelve awards for the cleanest, most fireproof, most social, and most fun student house in Groningen.