Crime rates and particularly the rates of violent and gun related crimes are rising in most rich countries. Targets for blame include higher drug use, higher inequality and greater availability of weapons. While Liberal politics tends to favor rehabilitation and structural improvement to combat crime the right wing has always seen criminality as a rational choice that can be combated by deterrence. Zero Tolerance policing aims to stop serious crime by clamping down on the minor crimes like graffiti that the practitioners believe lead to further crimes and using custodial sentences for first offences. It includes set responses to particular crimes by the police although the courts maintain some discretion. Zero Tolerance is not necessarily exclusive of urban regeneration, social investment or community policing. Its exponents, however, often rule them out because of their political philosophy. In the following paper, I will provide a definition of Zero Tolerance Policing, a brief history of the idea and outline several pro's and con's often used in arguments for or against the method. According to the official New York City website, Zero Tolerance Policing is defined as the policy "instituted over ten years ago as a full-scale strategic attack on all crime and disorder in the City. In particular it focuses on the enforcement of quality of life offenses' such as drinking alcoholic beverages in the street, urinating in public, panhandling, loud radios, graffiti and disorderly conduct. By quickly addressing and correcting these minor problems, the Department sends the message that more serious crime will not be tolerated" (NYPD, FAQ #1). The idea of Zero Tolerance Policing is based on ideas developed by two criminologists in the United States, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, who, in 1982, published a seminal article entitled "Broken Windows" in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. They argued that an ambience of unrestrained petty crime creates the impression that "no one is in control" and that more serious crime can be committed with impunity. In other words, unchecked disorder and incivility in a given location send an unspoken invitation to more predatory criminals. Wilson and Kelling specified two general manifestations of disorder, the physical and the behavioral. By physical indicators, they referred to such things as graffiti, litter, general disrepair, and the "broken windows" of their title. Behavioral manifestations included public urination, fare evasion on public transport, loutish behavior by groups of youth, street solicitation by prostitutes, and other characteristics of urban life that many found offensive in the United States of the 1970s. The implications of the broken windows theory were that strict enforcement of petty crime and remediation of physical decay would prevent the development of an atmosphere conducive to more serious criminal offending. The Wilson and Kelling article was very influential, and has contributed to changes in policing in many jurisdictions in the United States and the United Kingdom (Wilson and Kelling, 1982).
Since the enactment of Zero Tolerance Policing, there has been numerous pros and cons argued about the policy. Some of those pros are:
Zero Tolerance policing provides a powerful deterrent to criminals. i) It creates a far greater awareness of police presence because there are more officers on the ground. Research shows a direct link between this perceived chance of detection and crime rates. ii) Strict punishments provide another firm deterrent because they make it clear that the consequences of detection will not be a minor irritant. iii) Convicts are less likely to re-offend because zero tolerance catches them early on in the escalating cycle of crimes and provides the short, sharp shock.' There is a clear message that crime will not be tolerated. If a law is to exist at all then it ought to be enforced. Otherwise they will be held in contempt (Dennis, page 35).
Cited: Ayers, Rick. Zero Tolerance, Resisting the Drive for Punishment. New York: New York,
Dennis, Norman. Zero Tolerance, Policing a Free Society. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2001.
Grabosky, P.N. "Zero Tolerance Policing." www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/tandi102.html. January, 1999.
Kelling, George and James Q. Wilson. "Broken Windows." The Atlantic Monthly
Monthly Magazine, 1982.
Webmaster. "New York City Official Website." http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/portal/index.jsp?front_door=true. Frequently Asked Questions, # 1, 2005.
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