Zero Tolerance Policing and Crime

Subject: Law
Type: Argumentative Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 2089
Topics: Criminology, Crime, Criminal Justice, Police


Crime in society is always perceived negatively due to the impacts it has on the community and especially the victims of a particular crime. Cities and States take different measures to ensure that they reduce crime and provide communities with the necessary environment for socio-economic progress. Coming up with an effective policing strategy is therefore important as it not only ensures the reduction of crime in an area but also creates a positive environment for socio-economic progress.

Politicians, as well as media commentators, have advocated for the adoption of zero tolerance policing in reducing crime, with their arguments based on the perceptions that zero tolerance is effective in the reduction of crime. Zero tolerance is a term that has been used to refer to the strict response by police on minor crimes as a way of reducing the likelihood that other major crime will take place (Joyce, 2017: 201). Research on areas where this approach has been adopted shows a reduction in crime incidence and some scholarly research support the notion that zero tolerance can be effective in crime reduction. The paper that follows looks at the different reasons behind politicians and media advocacy for zero tolerance policing with a review of the literature to identify scholarly evidence in this area. Through the broken windows theory, the paper argues that zero policing is effective in crime reduction though it encounters certain limitations.

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Zero Tolerance and Crime Reduction 

Zero-tolerance has an immediate impact on crime as petty offenders likely to become criminals are taken off the streets, thus preventing them from becoming full-blown criminals. As has been highlighted in the introduction, zero tolerance refers to an approach in which police use a strict response to a minor crime, and this reduces the likelihood that a major crime will take place. Such has been the basis behind the politicians and media advocacy for the adoption of this approach to crime reduction. The zero-tolerance policing approach does not treat petty offenses as petty but rather imposes strict responses that may involve taking the offender away from the street or any harsh punishment that acts as a deterrence to other offenders. As will be discussed later, the broken windows theory supports this approach to policing by noting that minor offenses lead to severe crime (Meinen, 2014: 15). As an example, the punishment of a shoplifter through community service or limited incarceration deters the individual from engaging in other crimes and limits his likelihood of becoming a violent robber. As such, strict actions against petty offenders limit their involvement in the crime, reduce their likelihood of engaging in worse crimes, and acts as a deterrent to other criminals. 

Media and political advocacy behind zero tolerance is also because the approach is seen as favorable since it is cheap, easy to implement, and gives the public a positive feeling that there are tangible outcomes. The notion of zero policing involves a strict clampdown on minor offenses through approaches such as fines or mandatory incarceration. Such actions are cheap on the basis that on the spot fines deters crime and do not require the incarceration of the individual later on after committing a serious offense where he goes on to use tax payer’s resources. The cost of incarceration in NSW for the period of 1993/1994 was estimated at between 34,000 to 50,000 dollars per person per year, and the costs are rising by the day (South and Weiss, 2015: 377). While incarceration is also part of the zero policing strategy, its use also serves as a deterrence to other criminals and therefore reduces the number of individuals likely to be incarcerated as a result of criminal activity. The incarceration approach also gives the public a positive feeling that substantial actions are being taken against criminals. The positive feeling is especially an aspect that politicians refer to as a way of gaining public confidence on approaches used to ensure public safety. Zero policing is therefore preferred by politicians and media commentators on the basis that fewer resources are used, it deters crime, and gives the public confidence that actions are being taken to ensure their safety.  

Cities, where the zero-tolerance approach has been used, have had a significant drop in crime rates. The adoption of zero-tolerance in New York since the 1990s has seen a significant reduction in crime as compared to other cities. As statistics indicate the homicide rate in New York reduced by 82 percent between 1990 and 2009 while the decline in other cities was by 56 percent (Zimring, 2011: 8). On the other hand, general crime in New York dropped by between 30 to 50 percent in a few years following the adoption of the zero-tolerance approach to policing. The success of the zero-tolerance approach in New York was by the use of a temporally and geographically selective policy that enabled the preference of criminal charges even to minor offenses. For these minor offenders, it also became evident that they had a previous history of criminal activity and therefore their arrests prevented them from engaging in any more crime. Further, the risk of arrest for minor offenses discouraged the carrying of firearms that in turn led to a drop in robbery and homicide rates. The New York case study presents statistical evidence on the preference of the zero policing strategy since it is effective in crime reduction. 

The Broken Windows Theory

The broken windows theory is closely linked to zero-tolerance and offers scholarly evidence that supports the advocacy by media commentators and politicians on the use of this approach. From the theory, low-level crime has to be tackled quickly to avoid escalation of the problem (Kelling and Wilson, 1982; Bottoms, 2012). The theory extends the notion that the escalation of the problem may come from the engagement by petty offenders in more serious crime, as well as attracting other criminals in the area. The failure to deal with low-level crimes is likely to attract serious offenders from elsewhere who will move in on the available opportunity, and this increases the level of urban decay in the particular neighborhood. As discussed in the previous section, the strict response to minor offenses serves as deterrence to other major crimes in a neighborhood, thus reducing the level of decay. The broken windows theory thus provides evidence that zero tolerance policing is effective in fighting against crime. 

The broken windows theory also extends the notion that minor aspects of disorder in the community send the message that social control is failing and the inhabitants will modify their behavior. The behavior may be such as the use of the streets less often and a relocation of law-abiding citizens’ thus lowering social control and increasing crime and disorder (Meinen, 2014, 15; Wyant, 2008). An example that Meinen (2014) extends is that the failure to mend broken windows, failure to pick up trash, and not asking loiterers to move on invites more trash and more loiterers in the neighborhood (p15). For the inhabitants of this neighborhood, the message they receive is that social controls are failing. The perception of disorder in the community leads to the thoughts that crime is increasing, and this will lead to behavior modification such as the use of the streets less often or failure to intervene against disorder. The outcome becomes more disorder and crime that encourages more criminals into the particular neighborhood. The broken window theory postulates the need to repair the broken windows such as through zero policing to emphasize that social controls are in place and that they are effective.    

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As deductible from the broken windows theory, zero-tolerance helps re-establish social control and order that deters any crime in that particular area. Through the zero-tolerance policing approach, the police can maintain order and control by reducing the number of offenders in the street, and this also enhances the quality of life for the orderly and law-abiding citizens (Mawby, 2015, 48). As postulated by the broken windows theory, the lack of social control in an area is likely to increase the incidence of crime, but zero policing helps re-establish social control. In areas where broken windows have given way to an increase in crime and erosion of social control, the application of zero tolerance re-establishes this control by dealing with any minimal instances of crime. The application of this policy approach gives the public the confidence that law enforcement is dealing with crime in the area and this brings about a sense of control. 

Limitations of Zero Policing

As much as zero policing portends advantages in dealing with crime, there are certain limitations such as the over-policing of minority groups especially in regions where they are associated with crime and or violence. The relationship between whites and blacks in society is always distended on the basis that the minorities are stereotyped as being more violent and aggressive, have high rates of crime involvement, and high incidence of drug use. A country such as the United States provides the perfect example where over-policing of minorities contributes to the high incarceration rates of blacks yet they make up only a small portion of the population. An article in the New York Times highlights the shortcomings of this over-policing by noting that 87 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession are blacks and Hispanics (Staples, 2012: Para 9). Such is despite the fact that the city decriminalized possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana. As such, zero policing may be effective in reducing crime, but it contributes to over-policing of minority groups and high rates of incarceration for these individuals.

Another limitation of zero policing strategy is that it brings about unintended consequences that include an escalation of crime in other areas. The application of zero policing in a particular area means that the stringent measures can displace criminals from one area to another as they seek to operate in regions with less strict policies on crime. As an example, drug traffickers in one city are likely to relocate to another city to continue their operations, and this means that while crime reduces in one area, it influences an increase in crime in another area. As such, crime reduction in one area leads to the displacement of crime in another region and thus waters down the effect of zero policing in crime reduction. Such implies that statistics showing crime reduction in particular regions may not be indicative of crime reduction but a displacement of crime to other regions.      

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Zero tolerance has been advocated for by media commentators and politicians since its aggressive approach to crime is seen as deterrence to other major crimes. Such ensures that the areas where the policies are being applied have an aspect of social control that helps in deterring criminals from that particular neighborhood. Evidence from regions and cities where this approach has been applied shows that it is effective in crime reduction. Further, zero tolerance is seen as favorable in the reduction of crime since it gives the citizens a sense of reassurance that something is being done to deal with crime. The victims of the crime also get a sense of justice through the punishment of offenders.  As also highlighted, zero tolerance has its shortcomings as regards the over-policing of minority groups due to the negative stereotypes conferred upon them. The approach to policing also brings about unintended consequences such as the displacement of crime and criminals in other regions. The advocacy by the media and politicians is therefore by the effectiveness of this approach in the reduction of crime in an area. 

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  1. Bottoms, A 2012, Developing Socio-Spatial Criminology. The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (fifth edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Joyce P 2017, Criminal justice: An introduction, Taylor & Francis, New York.  
  3. Kelling G and Wilson J 1982, Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety, The Atlantic Magazine, March 1982.
  4. Mawby R 2013, Policing across the world: Issues for the twenty first century, Routledge, London. 
  5. Meinen T 2014, Neighborhood disorder, crime, and the broken windows theory, University of Twente, Enschede.
  6. South N and Weiss R 2014, Comparing prison systems, Routledge, London.
  7. Staples B 2012, The human cost of ‘zero tolerance,’ The New York Times, 28 April 2012. Wyant R 2008, ‘Multilevel impacts of perceived incivilities and perceptions of crime risk on fear of crime isolating endogenous impacts.’ Journal of Research in crime and Delinquency, vol.45, no.1), pp. 39-64.
  8. Zimring 2011, The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, OUP, Oxford.
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