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Monday, December 1, 1997 Published at 20:57 GMT


Ray Mallon and 'zero tolerance'

Pioneered by the New York Police Department, the "zero tolerance" approach, or "positive policing" as some prefer to call it, is how the British Government is hoping to fulfil its promise to be "tough on crime".

Detective Superintendent Ray Mallon, who has been suspended as head of Middlesborough CID, has been the most colourful advocate of this strategy in Britain.

Last year he famously promised to quit if he failed to cut crime on his patch by 20% in 18 months - gaining him the nickname 'Robocop'.

Although 'zero tolerance' has wide political and popular support, it has far from universal support among other UK police forces.

It is also questionable as to whether it was this approach, or some other factor, which was responsible for the recent falls in crime in New York and elsewhere.

What is 'zero tolerance'?

The precise origins of term are obscure, but it has become associated with policing techniques used most famously in New York City and other parts of North America. It has been used in the UK in the King's Cross area of London, Hartlepool, Middlesborough and Strathclyde.

The strategy is based on the 'Broken Windows' theory - first developed by two American academics, George Kelling and James Wilson, in 1983. According to their theory, there is a link between disorder and crime - a view shared by Labour politicians. The thesis goes: visible signs of decay - litter, broken windows, graffiti, abandoned housing - signals public disinterest. Fear of crime is greatest in these disorderly neighbourhoods which prompts 'respectable' community members to leave. This undermines the community's ability to maintain order and decline follows.

Reasoning that it is easier to prevent a neighbourhood's slide into crime at the beginning rather than trying to rescue it once the slide has taken hold, the theory demands that even the most minor misdemeanours must be pursued with the same vigour as more serious crimes to create a deterrent effect.

What are initial results of the strategy?

Figures for New York have been well trumpeted. Since 1993, major crime in that city has fallen by 39% and murder has fallen by 49%. In the UK, results have been similar. Det Super Mallon managed to deliver on his promise cut crime by a fifth in 18 months - figures for the three months to February 1997 showed a 22% fall.

Det Super Mallon also achieved these kinds of results in his previous job in Hartlepool where he oversaw a reduction in crime of 38% in 28 months.

In London, 81% of residents of King's Cross say they feel safer thanks to the Metropolitan Police's "Operation Zero Tolerance" which targeted petty crime around King's Cross station.

Criticisms of 'zero tolerance'

1. There are negative consequences of aggressive policing:

A 29-year-old man choked to death when a police officer in New York arrested him for participating in a game of street football. In the subsequent homicide trial of the arresting officer, the defence claimed the officer was "simply following orders to focus on quality of life crimes such as loitering". This prompted criticism that police had become too aggressive in handling petty offences.

2. There are other explanations for falling crime in New York:

  • Fewer people are taking violence-inducing crack cocaine and are instead turning to more soporific heroin.
  • Some claim that the fall is the happy by-product of demographic change. The peak ages for offending are the teenage years and the numbers of this group have fallen.
  • Many of the people who were responsible for perpetrating the majority of violent or other crimes in the 1980s and early 90s are now in prison.
  • New York hired 7,000 new police recruits to pursue 'zero tolerance' when it already had twice as many police per head as Britain.
3. Crime has also fallen in areas without 'zero tolerance' policing:

Crime has fallen significantly in areas where different policing methods have been used. In San Diego, since 1993 murders have fallen by 41%, robberies by 36% and burglaries and vehicle-related crime by over 40%.

These results followed the building of partnerships between police and the public. Emphasis being placed on resolving problems long-term, working with other agencies and organisations, galvanising people to join in residents' associations, setting up partnerships with the Housing Commission to evict problem residents and redesigning public areas to reduce crime.

4. The long-term effects are unknown:

  • 'Zero tolerance' works well in densely populated areas with relatively high policing levels and large amounts of petty crime. However, where the population is more dispersed or the crime rate is already relatively low, it may have little effect.
  • In areas of high racial tension, the policy might leave locals feeling victimised.
  • The original proponents of the 'Broken Windows' theory argue that police must be sensitive to community and local experience.
5. There is too much emphasis on performance indicators:

Some police are critical of the way performance is judged by the number of crime reports taken, warrants executed, street searches carried out and arrests. They argue this discounts policing priorities established in consultation with local communities or how responsive officers were to crime victims. Charles Pollard, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, is a vocal sceptic of the strategy. He argues that the fall in crime could be more apparent than real if police are tempted to manipulate statistics in the drive to meet targets.

6.'Zero Tolerance' is only one part of wider strategy:

Although falls in crime have been attributed to 'zero tolerance', other strategies have also played an important role. For example, some emphasise the role of 'Compstat' - new computer software which produces weekly crime statistics for small geographical areas. The figures are examined in detail at weekly meetings in which chiefs of department question colleagues on their investigations. Many say this has a galvanising effect on officers and produces more focused policing.

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