'Zero tolerance' policing — a big lie
Australian police are seemingly introducing a US-style solution to crime — "zero tolerance" policing. But, argues TIM ANDERSON, a closer look at the US situation shows it is no solution at all.
New York-style "zero tolerance" policing neither solves crime nor delivers justice in the US. It would be a disaster in Australia. Zero tolerance is nothing more than old-fashioned law and order, along with the traditional over-policing of poor and marginal social groups.
The claim is that intensive targeting of petty crime will reduce major crime. Former New York Police Department chief William Bratton intensively prosecuted "squeegee people", prostitutes, public drunks, aggressive beggars, litterers and reckless cyclists, and claimed major crime had fallen.
Elsewhere zero tolerance has been pushed by police associations anxious for extra resources, and by politicians seeking law and order votes. "Zero tolerance" theorist James Quinn Wilson is a conservative who deplores the breakdown of the nuclear family and looser morals. He believes in reducing social security and tightening divorce laws.
Recently falling crime rates in the US are no evidence of the success of zero tolerance. Violent crime across the US has grown strongly since the late 1970s, alongside more intensive policing and greater penalties. There were peaks in the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s. The recent fall is from the record high levels of 1991-92.
The "land of the free" jails its citizens more than any country on earth — 1.7 million prisoners; 6 million in jail, on parole and on probation (1996). The US prison population has tripled since 1980 at the same time as its violent crime levels rose. Tougher penal sanctions in the US are clearly associated with rising violent crime rates.
Consider what zero tolerance applied evenly across the USA would mean: police would arrest and often jail the 32% of young people involved in petty theft, the 40% who smoke marijuana and the 50% involved in underage drinking. The current US model imported into Australia would raise our prison rate eight times and our violent crime rate several times.
There are currently inquiries into police brutality in New York and corruption in some parts of Britain — associated with zero tolerance policing. Serious assaults by police, racist policing and renewed fabrication of evidence have all been linked to zero tolerance.
Police dissenters include: Thames Valley Chief Constable Charles Pollard (zero tolerance is a "quick fix" and "myth peddling"); New Zealand Police Assistant Commissioner Paul Fitzharris ("We are not an army in the community, we are part of it"); and Fife Chief Constable John Hamilton (he would prefer to police by consent rather than alienate and antagonise the public: extra jobs would do more than "three strikes and you're out" policies).
Royal Commissioner Justice James Wood said, "Increasing the number of police will [not] satisfy a public which has ... an insatiable demand for less crime and more order" — Justice Wood advocated improving the quality and focus of policing.
[Tim Anderson is secretary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.]