Thursday, 6 September 2007

The myth of Zero tolerance

What connects a Scout leader from Manchester with an American presidential candidate?

As strange as it may seem the case of Kathleen Jenkins, a student, scout leader and general model citizen who has received a criminal conviction for putting her feet up on the seat of a train carriage is symptomatic of the way that the wrong conclusions have been drawn from Rudy Giuliani’s battle against crime in the Big Apple. Too much emphasis has been placed on the importance of so called ‘zero tolerance policing,’ the result has been that many policy makers have started to see a focus on minor infractions as a panacea for reducing crime. This has spawned a rash of bad policy, not least Labour’s war on anti-social behaviour.

Zero tolerance policing has its roots in ‘the broken windows’ theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. They sought to show that if police were to maintain order then they could not afford to ignore apparently minor crimes. The theory takes its name from a particularly persuasive example the authors produced: "Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”

The problem with this theory is not so much that its wrong but that it doesn’t get you very far. It is one thing to say that the police should tackle minor crimes, it is quite another to do it. The experience of New York shows how making the decision to implement a zero tolerance policy is far less important than having the means to implement it.

The reduction in crime during Giuliani’s time as mayor is indeed startling. In 1993 there 2420 murders, by 2002 that number had fallen to 909. It is certainly worthy of examination and imitation. What is surprising is how little of the reduction was down to zero tolerance. The drop did not even begin in Giuliani’s term but in that of his predecessor, David Dinkins. Zero tolerance was the brainchild of Giuliani and his police chief William Bratton and was not implemented until they came to power and is therefore highly unlikely to be responsible for the drop in crime.

If not zero tolerance then what? The (in)famous economist and author of ‘Freakonomics’ Steven J. Levitt, examined the drop in crime in New York and concluded that the major factor behind it was a massive increase in the size of the NYPD, which had begun under Dinkins. Put simply having more cops meant that the police were able to catch more crooks.

My local police force is currently so understaffed and consequently overstretched that it often struggles to investigate even fairly serious crimes like theft and burglary. They would only be able to begin tracking down litterlouts by ignoring other more unpleasant crimes. As long as police are forced to prioritise they will never be able to implement zero tolerance effectively.

This is not something our present government seems to have understood. While not giving the police the funding to recruit the officers they need to do their job effectively they have launched endless ineffective crackdowns on anti-social behaviour. The problems with these crackdowns is that they have started from the basis that what was needed was to punish minor infractions rather than a police force that was able to effectively enforce the law.

Apart from leading the government down a blind alley in terms of reducing crime, it has also had an alarming impact on our civil liberties. The search for ever more minor crimes to punish has had lead to criminalisation of many activities such as putting your feet up on the seat of a train that are annoying or distasteful rather than genuinely harmful. This phenomenon is described by Kathryn Hughes in an article for the Guardian:

There is a grave misunderstanding at the heart of all the cross-party rhetoric about stamping down on "yob culture". (Blair may have started it, but Boris Johnson was frothing it up nicely at the launch of his mayoral bid on Monday with that stirring promise to stamp out "casual ... incivility".) Yobbery may seem like an absolute condition, an obvious sin, the kind of thing on which all right-thinking people can agree as they scuttle terrified past a group of hoodies at a bus stop. But the fact is that it is a relative state, dependent on context. One person's loutishness is another's idea of chilling. Or to put it another way, yobbery is what other people do.

The police should deal with low-level crime but not for the reason that the proponents of zero tolerance propose. Only a minority of us will be murdered, raped or maimed but almost all of us will be victims of low level. These crimes have a real impact on many people’s quality of life and their perpetrators have been encouraged by the knowledge that an overstretched police force will be able to do little to stop them. What we need to tackle this blight is not more laws but more police.

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