Zero tolerance policing

6 June 2016

Zero-tolerance policing is a strong and authoritative form of policing with a main focus on minor crimes and public incivilities as public drunkenness, graffiti, beggary. Police discretion is removed and replaced by being tough on minor crimes and the use of coercive power. This is expected to cause a decline in major crimes as theft, burglary and violence. One of the main examples of zero-tolerance policing in practice is the policy of police commissioner William Bratton between 1991 and 1997. During that period crime rates declined largely, this was seen as a major evidence for the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policing. Although, other research has shown evidence for more, and maybe more important, explanations of the huge decline in crime.

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There was already a decline in homicide rates, the number of people using crack cocaine was declining, the drugs market was changing, intelligence-led policing was upcoming and there was an increase in community crime prevention (Bowling, 1999; Dixon, 1999). Considering this, we can question if zero-tolerance policing is as effective as claimed. To understand the effects of zero-tolerance policing, it is useful to look at it from a different point of view, a criminological point of view. There are many criminological theories which promote zero-tolerance policing, but also a lot of theories attacking it. In this research essay the main criminological theories will be considered resulting in a conclusion about zero-tolerance policing. The main question is: To what extend does zero-tolerance policing reduce crime from a criminological point of view?

Broken windows and broken windows-revised
The most important theory which provides a base for zero-tolerance policing is the broken windows theory of Wilson and Kelling (1982). This theory focuses on the consequences of minor crimes and deterioration of the environment. If the physical environment of a neighbourhood declines and if there are behavioural manifestations of disorder, it will give a message of disinterest. This will give criminals the feeling that the probability of detection is low (Bernasco & Nieuwbeerta, 2003). Another consequence of the behavioural and physical disorder is that the people will have growing feelings of insecurity and fear. O ‘Brien and Wilson (2011) argue that individuals determine whether a neighbourhood is safe or not by looking for signs of disorder as beggary or graffiti. The more incivilities they see, the less secure people will feel.

As a consequence of the fear, there will be a decrease of informal social control. The low degree of social cohesion is expected to result in more crime, as again, criminals will get the feeling that risk of sanction is low (Bernasco & Nieuwbeerta, 2003). A low degree of social cohesion can be shown by a lack of collectivity, a high residential mobility, loose relationships, little formal and informal control and ineffective social organisations (Lanier & Henry, 2010a). In short, physical disorder and the presence of minor crimes will result in more crime (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004). Zero-tolerance policing is therefore seen a good strategy to prevent crime because it will be tough on the physical and behavioural disorder.

Police officers have no discretion so no exceptions would be made. The broken windows theory seems convincing but when we take a closer look, there are some questionable points. Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) have revised the broken windows thesis and they believe that the minor crimes are not the cause of more serious crime but there is another, underlying factor that causes both minor crimes and major crimes. The underlying factor they mean is the degree of collectivity and cohesion in the neighbourhood. Disorder is seen as a manifestation of crime and thus shows that there is a low degree of social cohesion. Also the social disorganization theory of Shaw and McKay (cited in Lanier & Henry, 2009a, pp. 190 – 251) argues that there will be more crime in neighbourhoods with a low degree of social cohesion.

In short, this means that the minor crimes are not the main cause of more serious crimes, but it is the degree of social cohesion in a neighbourhood. Therefore zero-tolerance policing will not be effective because it does not focus on improving the social cohesion and the sense of collectivity in a neighbourhood. The policing strategy is especially focused on minor crimes and no exceptions can be made because the removal of the police discretion. This strict policy is more likely to create a hostile relationship between police and public than to create a bond with the society. According to the revised broken windows theory, policing strategies which are based on trust, communication and legitimacy are expected to be the most effective (Burke 1998; Dixon, 1999).

The deterrent effect of zero-tolerance policing
Another theory supporting zero-tolerance policing and its severe and tough policy is the rational choice theory. This theory is based on the idea that people are rational beings and they are free in the making of their decisions. They will weigh the costs and benefits and depending on the outcome they decide what to do. Crime is seen as an outcome of this rational choice whereby the benefits are bigger than the costs.

The choice people make is strongly influenced by situational factors. To prevent crime it is therefore important to change the situational factors and give people the feeling that the costs are higher than the benefits (Lanier & Henry, 2009b). Zero-tolerance policing can be seen as a good way to give people that feeling of being controlled. When the police tolerates no crimes at all people will easier decide to refrain from committing a crime because the expected risk of sanction is high. In addition to this theory, it is important to deepen the concept of deterrence. There are two forms of deterrence, general deterrence and specific deterrence, both with the treat of punishment as main principle. The former is about preventing the whole community from committing a crime by punishing a few of them as example.

The latter focuses on preventing one particular person from committing a crime by punishing the person itself. Because the treat of punishment, the costs of committing a crime will be higher and therefore people will be less likely to break the law. As becomes clear the deterrence perspective is closely related to the rational choice theory. An important question is, under which conditions is the deterrent effect optimal? There are a few conditions which are mentioned by Jeremy Bentham (cited in Ashworth, 1992, pp. 53-61), namely certainty, celerity and severity. Certainty is seen as the most important one and severity as the least important one. It is difficult to say if zero-tolerance policing meets all the requirements to have a maximal deterrent effect. It is clear that people became more certain of being punished for minor crimes and since certainty is often seen as the main condition, a significant effect is expected. For example the stop and searches by police officers will reduce street criminality because the expectancy of getting caught gets higher (Innes, 1999).

Also zero-tolerance policing meets the severity part since sanctions are higher. Proving the celerity part is more difficult, there is a chance that the punishment process delays because of the overload of cases. On the other side the sanctioning process may be completed more quickly because of the high priority of it. In short, zero-tolerance policing seems to generate a deterrent effect which reduces criminality on the streets. However, the deterrent effect seems to have its limits and it is difficult to prove the effectivity of deterrence. At first it assumes that offenders think rationally, but mostly they do not think about the consequences while committing a crime.

Furthermore the deterrence by the treat of punishment has certainly not the biggest influence on the offender, other things like family are often found more important. Also, the deterrent effect has often got a small reach because not everyone in the society gets to know which sanctions are given (Ashworth, 1992). So, we can ask ourselves how effective zero-tolerance policing will be in practice because the effectiveness of deterrence is questionable. It is also very important to keep other side effects in mind, as I mentioned before, the rational choice theory assumes that tough policy and a high level of control can deter people from committing a crime. However, a high level of control will not always have a good influence on the public. The negative effects of tough policing can be found in the consequences of the large number of stop and searches in the UK.

Each time someone is stopped and searched without a justifiable reason, it damages the public confidence and its respect for the police. Further, the use of the stop and searches often turns out to be disproportionate because they usually focuses on poor areas. Some ethnic minorities are more likely to live in this poor areas which holds that they are more often targeted by stop and searches. Inequalities like this can cause violence and riots, for example the riots in the UK in 2011. Young people felt anger against the police and the disproportionate use of stop and searches triggered them to start a riot (Bowling, 2008).

Legitimacy and communication
As becomes clear from the example of the UK riots in 2011, it is really important for the police to be viewed as legitimate, trustable and to be able to communicate with the civilians. Legitimate policing is not just more popular but it is also more effective in reducing crime, because the public is more willing to provide information and more willing to abide the law (Sherman, 1997). Thus, the importance of this criteria should not be underestimated. To what extent does zero-policing meet this requirements? Many research has shown that zero-tolerance policing declines the legitimacy of the police (Burke, 1998; Dixon, 1999). This is caused by the military, aggressive style of the strategy which creates a growing gap between the public and the police. It seems that marginalized groups are often targeted and crime of the powerful is largely ignored.

This unequal and often disproportionate policing is one of the main causes of the growing distrust in the police and the gap I mentioned. As a result of this gap, there will be a decline in information flows from the civilians to the police which reduces the effectiveness of the police since information is necessary fighting crime. Another problem caused by the gap is the reluctance of civilians to report crime to the police. This will make it more difficult for the police to response effectively on crime. When trust in the police is decreasing and the information flow is declining, police officers have to find other ways to get information about crime and the society. Therefore, there is a growing likelihood that police officers will make use of stereotypes which results in the enforcement of police targeting some specific areas due to prejudices and racial profiling.

As becomes clear, it is a vicious circle which produces a decline in legitimacy and a growing gap between policy and public. From this point of view, the effects of zero-tolerance policing are not very positive. Another cause of declining legitimacy is the growth of police aggression and brutality, because police officers are conforming into their roles of being tough and strict (Burke, 1998). The Brixton Riots in South-Londen are a good example of the consequences of a weakening relationship between the police and the public and a growing distrust in the police organization. Lord Scarman wrote a report about the riots in 1981 (cited in Burke, 1998, pp. 666-682) saying that the aggressive form of policing and the mistrust in the police were the cause of the riots.

The main recommendation in the report was the importance of a good collaboration between the police and the public in preventing and fighting crime. Zero-tolerance policing is a strategy that weakens the relationship between police and civilians and is thus expected not to have a positive effect in reducing crime.

The labeling effect
Zero-tolerance policing can have more negative effects which are not mentioned before. One of the side effects is caused by the unequal policing that especially targets marginalized groups. This targeting of marginalized groups can start a process of labeling and self fulfilling prophecy. The police is very important in identifying people, thus a negative label or stigma given by the police can lead to a negative self-image in the stigmatized group. This image can have such a big impact on people, that the marginalized people will adapt their behavior to their new image.

So, the prophecy of criminality fulfills itself as a consequence of the labeling process. Research has shown that the labeling process has the biggest impact after being incarcerated. Since zero-tolerance policing can be really tough, especially on some marginalized groups, there is a chance that the labeling process will be initiated. Also, there is much evidence that the incarceration rates will increase if zero-tolerance policing is practiced (Jussim et al. 2000).

The effects of zero-tolerance policing cannot simply be labelled positive or negative. In practice it seemed to have a huge impact shown by declining crime rates in New York between 1991 and 1997. However, when we take a closer look, the declining crime rates are more likely to be caused by other factors. Many criminological theories do suggestions about the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policing, some positive and some negative. The main question that is answered in this paper is: to what extend does zero-tolerance policing reduce crime, from a criminological point of view?

The broken windows theory provided evidence for a high effectiveness of the strategy, but the revise of this theory highlighted an underlying explanation of both minor and major crimes. The rational choice theory argues that zero-tolerance policing does have an effect because of the high deterrent effect. However, this deterrence is never proven and zero-tolerance policing can, on the other side, cause violence and riots as the UK Riots in 2011. As becomes clear, zero-tolerance policing does not strengthen the relationship between the police and the public. Worsening communication and declining legitimacy are caused by disproportionate and aggressive policy.

This will not only cause a decline in information flow, but it will also cause a decreasing willingness to abide the law. Another side effect of zero-tolerance policing is shown by the labeling theory which argues that being tough on some specific groups can cause a negative self-image which can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to this criminological theories zero-tolerance policing will have more negative effects than positive effects. A better way of dealing with crime is to build a relationship with the community and to gain trust and legitimacy. A flexible and cooperative approach will make it possible to rebuild public trust and to strengthen relationships between police and public, in the end this will make our community safer.

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