future view

How neuroscientists can help detectives

16 November 2018 • 6 min reading time

For the last three years the criminal investigation bureau of West Brabant in the Netherlands, has been tackling serious crime not just with good detective work, but also with scientists. TNO neuroscientist Victor Kallen and his team have been helping the police predict the behaviour of criminals and their networks.

Life is good in Brabant – but not everywhere. The Dutch province is also well known for its criminal drug-related activities. According to Rienk de Groot, head of the criminal investigation bureau in West Brabant, in some working-class districts these activities have had seriously disruptive effects ever since the 1960s. Parallel economies have emerged that are run by hardened criminals, and new generations of youngsters are drifting into crime almost automatically. A comparatively recent insight is that while ‘repression’ (tracking criminals down and putting them behind bars) remains vital, applied science can also be used to combat crime.

Scientists on the job

Since 2015, De Groot and his 550 detectives have been consulting neuroscientist Victor Kallen of TNO. As ‘scientists on the job’, Kallen and his colleagues translate scientific models of criminal behaviour into police practice. Part of the aim is to get a better picture of the basic motives underlying criminal behaviour, and of the actions that follow these motives. With this knowledge in mind, detectives in the field can make an impact at a much earlier stage in the criminal process. The result of this successful collaboration is that this kind of behavioural and neuroscientific knowledge is about to be deployed more broadly.

An example is the recently launched ‘Undermining Lab’, in which scientists apply their knowledge to practical situations, collaborating with professionals in the field. They are included in the teams responsible for combating the day-to-day ‘undermining behaviour’ of criminals. This undermining behaviour forms a serious problem as it badly damages an area’s ‘social fabric’ and is often a difficult problem to solve in practice.

De Groot: “We asked Victor what science could teach us about intimidation. The knowledge we gained allows us to better assess the seriousness of a threat”

Could you give an example of this collaboration?

De Groot: “One problem is the number of threats being made to mayors and to municipal office staff. We asked Victor whether science could teach us about intimidation, and with what we’ve learned we can now assess the seriousness of a threat much better, for example. The same scientific insights were also used to develop helpful information for the municipal workers facing this intimidation at work. In Bergen op Zoom this has already helped. The reception staff there did a special training course, and now they feel stronger, they have more self-confidence, and the number of incidents has also fallen, because they have a better understanding of how to react to them.”

What can scientific knowledge do for police work, in concrete terms?

Kallen: “Quite a lot of behavioural and neurological research has been done into so-called ‘undermining behaviour’, including intimidation. In neurobiology and in the social sciences models have been developed that describe the patterns typically exhibited by intimidating behaviour. A good example is the recent verbal word play between Trump and Kim Jong-un. It was a pretty classic case of intimidation; its escalation was in fact quite logical. Many people were afraid that their reciprocal threats might end in war, but given the way they attacked each other with words, a shared cup of coffee was ultimately the logical outcome.”

What does this teach us about the undermining behaviour of leading criminals?

De Groot: “The language they use to threaten their victims, and they way they repeat these threats, are revealing. For instance, it can tell you whether they really intend to do something to someone, and how soon.”

Kallen: “Research has been done into how American gangs arise, how they are organized, and how they work. I try to translate this to the Brabant situation”

So neuroscience can be used to catch criminals?

De Groot: “It supplements all the other detective work. Scientific knowledge helps us to understand how professional criminals think and work, and it goes further. For instance, Victor and his team are also doing research into how criminal networks arise and how they are maintained. There’s a whole social dynamic behind this, from family links and threatened neighbours to professional criminals who don’t just grow cannabis but who give financial support to the football club and are looked up to by the local youngsters.”

Is there anything to be learned from other countries?

Kallen: “Quite a lot of research has been done into how American gangs arise, how they are organized, and how they work. I try to translate this to the Brabant situation. There are differences between Philadelphia and Vlijmen, obviously, but one thing they do have in common, for instance, is that youngsters in gangs, both in America and in Brabant, feel marginalized. This kind of knowledge helps us to predict which groups might feel attracted by the prospect of a criminal career. Another good example is that criminals don’t only show antisocial behaviour outside, on the street, but also in many cases in their own homes. This is why the police maintains close contacts with social workers; they’re often the first ones to notice that things are going wrong in a certain family, and this means the police can look ahead.”

De Groot: “We don’t just stick to scientific models; the TNO people translate their knowledge into practical recommendations that we can act on right away”

Your collaboration has had a lot of press attention.

De Groot: “We’re not the only investigation bureau working with behavioural scientists, but I think we’re doing better than most. The success factor is that we don’t just stick to scientific models; the TNO people translate their knowledge into practical recommendations that we can act on right away. The Dutch Ministry of Justice & Security is aware of this, and they made it possible for us to launch the ‘Undermining Lab’, a centre where we can embed social science knowledge in our organization and start new projects. Police strategy is still to obstruct criminals as much as possible, but at the same time we want to mitigate the factors that lead to criminal behaviour. We can’t do much about unemployment and school drop-out rates, but we can help residents become more resilient, so that they can tell a neighbour to stop growing a cannabis crop before it wrecks the whole neighbourhood.”

Scientists on the job

The ‘scientists on the job’ from TNO are scientists who immerse themselves in real-world practice. On the one hand they make their scientific knowledge available to the organizations and companies to which they are linked; they also search for new research results that are directly applicable in the workplace. On the other hand they use their day-to-day practice to inform their own ongoing research, and to link this practice with universities and institutes of higher education. The neuroscientist Dr. Victor Kallen has worked with the West Brabant criminal investigation bureau since 2015. Kallen: “It’s really satisfying to know that social science can contribute towards a safer society. Best of all, to my mind, is the fact that in a number of neighbourhoods and communities that used to be notorious the atmosphere has changed so much that residents once again dare speak to enforcers, to talk to them about safety and social issues. This is a particularly strong indicator of strengthened social resilience.”

Police-TNO cooperation

Advancing digitization, the increasing availability of information and new forms of crime are constantly challenging the police organization to innovate. To respond to these changes, the police cooperate with knowledge-intensive organizations that are familiar with these technological and social issues. TNO is an important partner for the police in this matter.
Want to know more? Contact us.

Would you like to know more?

Could your organization also use the practical scientific knowledge of TNO’s behavioural and neurological scientists? Get in touch with Victor Kallen.

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