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Law and order
22 March 2013

Heresy of the week: There is zero evidence for zero tolerance policing

City Journal has a fantastic profile by John Buntin of Bill Bratton, whose inspired leadership of the New York Police Department famously restored law and order to America’s largest city.

Bratton’s police career began in Boston, where he first developed the ideas that would characterise his approach to law enforcement:

  • “At first, Bratton focused on what he saw as serious crime… But at the community meetings, Bratton kept hearing about different concerns: prostitution, after-hours clubs, loud parties, and public drinking. The sore spot in the South End was dirty streets: street sweepers couldn’t clean them because of illegally parked cars, and though the scofflaws got tickets, they rarely got towed. So after one complaint-filled meeting, Bratton decided to do what the community wanted. For days, police officers wrote tickets and towed cars.
  • “In the process, something unexpected happened. While out writing tickets, one of the cops started chatting with a resident about the South End burglaries. It turned out that the resident had seen someone suspicious around the time of a recent break-in. The officer handed the tip to detectives, who arrested the offender and ended the burglary spree. Bratton had learned an important lesson: addressing public concerns about disorder could prevent more serious crimes.”

This phenomenon was studied by sociologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling and formalised as the ‘Broken Windows’ theory.

After moving to New York, Bratton would become the first police chief to test the theory on a large scale:

  • “The transit cops who, following his orders, started arresting turnstile jumpers made a surprising discovery: one in seven was wanted on an outstanding warrant, and one in 21 was carrying a weapon. In short, enforcing the law was also an excellent way to arrest felons and fugitives, which in turn drove down crime rates and public fear.”

However, Broken Windows is not the same thing as so-called zero tolerance policing. And it’s interesting that a conservative US publication like City Journal should take the trouble to identity the UK as being especially prone to this misconception: 

  • “The British press has been particularly zealous about describing the NYPD’s approach as ‘zero tolerance.’ It isn’t. ‘Broken Windows has always been a negotiated sense of order in a community, in which you negotiate with residents about what is appropriate behavior in an area,’ says Kelling. ‘If you tell your cops, ‘We are going to go in and practice zero tolerance for all minor crimes,’ you are inviting a mess of trouble.’ The idea that authorities alone, without community involvement, should implement a zero-tolerance policy toward anything more than the most limited problems of crime or disorder disturbs Kelling greatly. Both he and Bratton view it as the single most misunderstood legacy of their time in New York.”

As it happens, real zero tolerance policing has been tried in America – and it was a disaster:

  • “Their concern isn’t academic or theoretical: there was a place where observers could have watched the effect of zero-tolerance policing, had they cared to look for it. That place was South Los Angeles, where Daryl Gates’s Operation Hammer was shattering relations between the police and minority communities.”

It was an episode that culminated in the Rodney King Riots of 1992. Following the violence, various unsuccessful attempts were made to reform the LAPD, improve community relations and turn the tide of crime in Los Angeles. They failed.

But, then in 2002, a new police chief was appointed – hot from New York, guy by the name of Bratton. Once again, his brand of effectively-led, evidence-based, community-rooted policing delivered real improvement.

So, the next time you hear someone advocate zero tolerance policing, ask them where they think its already been tried. And if they say New York or Los Angeles, do put them right.


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