Column One: Zen and the art of enforcing law and order

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The Independent Online
IT MAY seem surreal to imagine a British Bobby laying aside his helmet and assuming the lotus position in an attempt to attain deeper knowledge and a oneness with the world, but in Amsterdam that is exactly what has been happening.

More than a third of the 5,500-strong police force that keeps law and order in Amsterdam, have been regularly attending spiritual courses at a local branch of the Academy of Brahma Kumaris - a quasi-religious cult founded in India during the 1930s.

Inner members of the cult are required to meditate every five hours, night and day, and to refrain from sex. While the police are not expected to attain such dizzy heights of self-denial, they are encouraged to try their best.

As part of a course known innocuously as "Positive Thinking", officers are encouraged to lead a more spiritual life, to meditate, and to moderate as best they can their personal addictions - whether they be sex, alcohol, marijuana, or simply a penchant for chocolate.

Amsterdam's police force has never been prisoner to orthodoxy. Officers have everything from special off-road motorcycles to mountain bikes with which to pursue their criminal foes, and they recently tried to create an elite "inline-skating" unit for rapid response to street crime. For several months officers could be seen across the city centre, tentatively trying to work their beat on skates, while intermittently tottering off balance and grasping at lampposts.

Despite that, however, the popularity of the Brahma Kumaris course has caused considerable disquiet in some quarters of the constabulary - particularly among those sceptical of the cult's good intentions in providing the courses free of charge. Some patrol officers also fear that their colleagues' behaviour will wreck their street credibility.

According to a police spokesman, Mr Wilting, the normally open-minded Dutch public is also unenthusiastic about the project. "The police's positive thinking has in general not been so positively received by the general public," he said.

As a result, the police have been attempting to play down their involvement with Brahma Kumaris. Mr Wilting dismissed it as a "passing fad", and said the number of police involved was certainly no more than 200.

However, according to F Wagenaar, a former Amsterdam police chief who himself attended two Brahma Kumaris courses, the actual number is nearer to 2,000 and officers have been involved since as far back as 1990. "I myself

encouraged them to go," Mr Wagenaar declared.

Such encouragement has involved officers being allowed

to attend courses during duty hours, with a free day being offered to those who underwent the course in their own time - a practice that Mr Wilting said has now been stopped.

At the meditation sessions held at the "Academy" - an impeccably clean and simply furnished building sporting icons of the cult's founder Brahma Baba - officers are presented with a rich hotchpotch of religious as well as psychoanalytical ideas, presented by a former journalist, Jacqueline Berg.

Ms Berg's aim is for the police to purge themselves of their "negative energy" and to become a source emitting "positive energy" for the local community. To describe the potential magnitude of such energy flows, she explained that while purging herself of negative energy during a recent illness, she caused an electrical storm and fused all the electrical sources in her house.

Far from being beneficial to the police, some observers believe that they have simply been duped into providing a cult, which claims to have 3,500 branches in over 70 countries, with a much-needed aura of respectability. In the official Brahma Kumaris brochure, uniformed police officers beam happily out of a group photograph headed: "Police in Amsterdam at the end of their Positive Thinking course."

Supporters of Brahma Kumaris within the constabulary cite the project as further evidence of the Amsterdam police force's long tradition of open-mindedness towards new ideas and changes in society.

According to one officer, such open-mindedness is all "part of the city's easy-going culture". Should a tourist ask a policeman for a good place to smoke cannabis, then the chances are he will be given polite directions to half a dozen coffee shops in impeccable English, French or German, as encouraged in police training.

Mr Wilting said the entire project was now under review.