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Zero Tolerance Policing

Theoretical Perspective

There is no succinct evidence pertaining to the efficacy of zero-tolerance policing adopted by New York among other cities. According to George and William (2001), the decline in crime rates in New York City especially in the last decade of the 20th century, was a result of a collective effort by the inhabitants of New York and the police force in implementing policies and police strategy, alongside tactics initiated by the Mayor and his police commissioner William Bratton. The mayor, Rudolph Giuliana and his counterpart, the police commissioner, contributed greatly in changing the behavior of New York residents by educating and warning citizens, as well as apprehending offenders. This is quite contrary to the other claims for reasons zero tolerance has been credited for the reduction of crime rates in New York City. In reality, reference to drop in crime rates in NYC should be seen in the context of declines in crime in other cities such as San Diego and Boston. This decline in crime rate is apparently propagated by a chain of factors which must be acknowledged as a whole. In actual fact, the decline in crime rates in all cities ought to be addressed from a point of view that focuses on factors applicable to all of them. For instance, the most outstanding factors are an improving economy, reduction in the use of crack cocaine-this will discourage engagement in crime since there will be opportunities in gainful employment — and smaller numbers of teenage males since they make the majority offenders who take part in crime as a form of livelihood who are the predominant perpetrators of violent crimes. In most cases, it is evident that police practices are the determinant forces in the decline of crime rates; however, drop in crime rates was accompanied by disregard for human rights and application of brutality by the police which was extensively biased toward black American and other minority groups of the population (Greene, 1999). However, the 3 Strikes Rule was also influential since it resulted in incarceration of repeat offenders especially in cases involving minor crimes which resulted in long term incarceration.

Although police practices are a main factor in the decline witnessed in crime rates, other factors such as demographics, and the economy and evolving patterns in use of drugs and ought to be perceived as extensively significant since they are more effective in curbing crime thus, they are also pertinent to establishing solid conclusions on the subject. The adoption of policing and law enforcement strategies by the police force to curb crime was widely employed in the NYC. The response by the police was quite explicit: that police hinder criminal activities by their presence, by enforcement of law and order, and by persuasion, as well as reducing opportunities for law violation. However, empirical findings pertaining to police practices find that changed police functions as mostly being limited to patrols, usually in patrol vehicles, and rapid response by providing services, such as dispute management, which are least related to the direct fight against crime. Thus changing police practices may have been of minimal significance, and thus of low impact, in the war against crime. Therefore the ultimate suggestion for the main contributing factors to crime reduction is mainly derived from the collective root causes of crime in society. For instance, social injustice, poverty and racism are undeniable root causes of crime and addressing them would definitely curb incidence of crime cases. The response of the NYPD to social injustice in NYC was not the only factor leading to the decline of crime rates, but also the dot com bubble which lead to an improved economy whereas still remained a threat to crime rates to some degree. In practice, if society was radically changed these root causes would be averted and hence motives to commit crimes would be neutralized. This concept has been acknowledged by a majority of scholars [REFs] and indicates that police and criminal departments are only responsible in reacting to crimes after their occurrence. Clearly, police do not really influence the prevention and reduction of crime in a direct manner in any case (Belina & Helms, 2003).

Empirical Evidence

Zero-tolerance policing has led to concentration of law enforcement pertaining to minor crimes at the expense of serious crimes. The business of police as law enforcers is a matter of on-going problems and not isolated incidents. In actual fact, response-oriented police functions are an array of disconnected scenarios without a traceable history or a future. In reality, most police incidents were encountered before in a similar manner, and are likely to recur. Therefore, instances of prostitution, noisy and unruly bars, as well as spousal abuse, are the quintessence of examples, and depict an ongoing series of problems which can only be resolved if the police handle the problem in suitable manner. In addition, the theory of “broken windows”, developed by George Killing, suggests that failure to contain minor offences, such as disorderly conduct, lead to unruly neighborhoods and create disturbances, hence contributing to public disorder. In such an environment, the theorists argue WHO? REF, that such public disorder would motivate people to turn to crime since toleration of petty crimes demonstrates laxity of social control. Therefore, according to these arguments, restoration of order in such neighbors is extremely crucial to curb crime. This practice was adopted by the New York Police Department as NYPD practice 11. However, concentration of policing activities on minor crimes, such as arrests of marijuana offenders, took their toll in New York City whereby the number of arrests rose from an average of 1, 500 incidences to 50, 000 an year, which illustrates the concentration of police resources in combating minor misdemeanors. In reality, minor misdemeanor cases are a huge number score and defense lawyers report that police fail to report and fully document these cases and fail to report on dismissal of charges when outcomes are favorable to defendants (Punch, 2007).

Zero-tolerance policing has had innumerable drawbacks to the society, especially arrests without conviction. An in-depth analysis by the Legal Action Center REF outlined errors in criminal records of petty offenders. In reality, the police have an exaggerated record of petty offenders, and bypass proper clearances and conclusions, or termination of their cases, and thus leave a gap of injustice. Since the records of arrests are left unconcluded, incorrect data are obtained by companies during back-screening because criminal records are not cleared in cases of dismissal of charges when records are then sealed by the courts. In addition, the companies never expunge this information on such criminal records from their records. Although it is illegal to exclude people from employment for the sole reason of an arrest or conviction, unless there is legal business reason for such an action, the majority of employers turn down applicants whose records appear in these databases (Hubbard, 2004).

Crime data ought to be examined from a perspective of its connection with other social factors. The porous nature of recording keeping is quite misleading in analyses of crime data. For instance, petty offenders, such as those arrested over possession of marijuana for personal use, undermines law enforcement since it leads to victimization of innocent people due to errors hence they end up in criminal records, which they have no easy way to correct. The zero tolerance policy thus is not the leading light in combating crime, but rather a disastrous tool that concentrates on minor offenses instead of serious crime. In most cases, petty offenders arrested for being in possession of a scrap of marijuana are from low social classes with weak economic background, and are most badly affected by criminal records from minor misdemeanors. For instance, young parents suffer neglect allegations in court after being arrested for being in possession of marijuana (Coffin, 1999). This is so even for those arrests that did not amount to convictions. Staples REF describes an instance that appeared in Time Magazine which depicts a woman whose niece was removed from her care by child welfare personnel after police found a negligible amount (one ounce) of marijuana in her apartment in Bronx, despite the refusal of the district attorney to prosecute since the amount of marijuana was below threshold. In other cases, the New York City Housing Authority has periodically adopted a convention for termination of a tenant upon their arrest. Although, the authority upholds that no one is evicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana, it is quite frequent that petty offenders are evicted by family members to avoid eviction by the authority (Staple, 2012).

In another case involving a mother aged 26 years from Brooklyn, whose arrest occurred after the enforced display of a scrap of marijuana from her purse by the police was determined by the courts as dismissed if the woman did not break the law in a year. However, this did not seem to protect since she lost her job within a week due to the arrest. Thus, zero tolerance leads to criminalization of social problems and marginalization of some groups of people in the society (George & William, 2001).


Comparisons of crime data vary to a great extent, and this becomes relevant in the evaluation of policy activity pertaining to curbing crime. In evaluation of the unexpected decline in crime rates in New York City, it was considered that the application of the “compstat” system yielded much in deterring crime. The use of the “compstat” system was initiated in New York City and later spread to other cities in the US. This innovation influenced the distribution of resources and tactics; hence police departments underwent administrative evolution. The centralized version of the New York Police Department was decentralized under Bratton, who was the head at the time, and resulted in re-distribution of resources and tactics in all seventy six precincts of the NYPD. The administrative mechanism focused on objective community problems instead of the archaic bureaucratic priorities. Since crime data from different geographic areas had distinct patterns in comparison to others, there was a need to distinguish the detail and uniqueness of their characteristics in order to mount appropriate responses (George & William, 2001).

Evaluation of zero-tolerance policing cannot be established without fieldwork to unearth the dynamics of policing which is the main drawback in using secondary data. Most reports on crime and analyses of police practice can be quite misleading since they do not contain first hand information on the nature and form of policing tactics in specific locations and involving specific actions to support their conclusions. The context of policing situations can only be understood from first hand data observation is often overlooked in methodological approaches since the routinely collected data and the context of the incidents are crucial to understanding the overall situation. For instance, a police response such as “you had be there to understand” are revealing of how secondary sources are inadequate in analyzing crime and police tactics (George & William, 2001).

Problem-solving and accountability in policing is a leading strategy in crime reduction, especially with the application of the “compstat” system and police tactics that seek to solve problems in distinct precincts under the NYPD, as well as in police department in other cities. Owing to systematic and problem-focused policing, the decentralization of the police resources had improved opportunities in curbing crime — whose reduction would never be accomplished by zero tolerance alone (Greene, 1999).


Insight into crime reduction, other than zero-tolerance policing, indicate that it is incorrect to give credit to zero-tolerance as the sole reason for the overall reduction in crime. For instance, the “broken windows” policy, which emphasized arrests of offenders for misdemeanors was instrumental in restoring public stability and order, and hence reduction in crime, in areas that were prone to such violence. It is noteworthy that it effectiveness was not dependent on zero tolerance as it seemed. In actual fact, the policy of “broken windows” was favored by other factors, such as, historical coincidences, demographics, drug abuse trends, as well as economic forces, which were fundamental in the change which fostered public stability and order. In addition, the use of the “compstat” system overhauled the police department administrative strategies and problem solving tactics hence providing more accountability and improved pace in curbing crime (Innes, 1999).

To conclude, it is imperative to appreciate the social and economic factors as well as administrative factors that are relevant to policing and influence the outcomes of policing. Thus, the decline of crimes should be perceived as a collective of the application of the factors instead of giving credit to a mere policy and undermining the complexity of crime.

Reference List

Belina, B., & Helms, G. (2003). Zero tolerance for the industrial past and other threats: policing and urban entrepreneurialism in Britain and Germany. Urban Studies, 40(9), 1845-1867.

Punch, M. (2007). Zero tolerance policing. The Policy Press.

Greene, J. A. (1999). Zero tolerance: a case study of police policies and practices in New York City. Crime & Delinquency, 45(2), 171-187.

Innes, M. (1999). ‘An Iron Fist in an Iron Glove’The Zero Tolerance Policing Debate. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(4), 397-410.

Coffin, D. D. P. (1999). Zero tolerance policing of illegal drug markets. Drug and Alcohol Review, 18(4), 477-486.

Gutmann, S., & Books, E. (2009). ZERO TOLERANCE POLICING. The Debatabase Book: A Must-Have Guide for Successful Debate, 233

IEA health and welfare unit. (1997). Zero tolerance: policing a free society.

Burke, R. H. (Ed.). (1998). Zero tolerance policing. Perpetuity Press.

Grabosky, P. N. (1999). Zero tolerance policing. Australian Institute of Criminology.

Staple B (2012) . The Human Cost of ‘Zero Tolerance’accessed on [22 Oct 2013] available at tolerance.html?_r=0

George L. K & William H. S, Jr. (2001). Do Police Matter? An Analysis of the Impact of New York City’s Police Reformsaccessed on [22 Oct 2013] available at

Smith, N. (2001). Global social cleansing: Postliberal revanchism and the export of zero tolerance. Social Justice, 28(3 (85), 68-74.

Hubbard, P. (2004). Cleansing the metropolis: sex work and the politics of zero tolerance. Urban Studies, 41(9), 1687-1702.