Lesson from New York on zero-tolerance toward crime



Masud Khabeki


Our cities have a long way to go before they catch up with 1980s New York when the city was declared as the capital of crime and Bronx was often described as a war zone. The most worrying thing so far is the fact that our urban cities are presenting a typical example of social disorder as we are confronted with traffic congestion turning into a complete mess in peak hours, our garbage collection and sanitation is left to many unanswered questions, our youth misbehaving at traffic intersection and public places and aggressive begging in presence of police and traffic wardens, mobile snatching and robberies are the few social disorders seen in each and every city of Pakistan. The people are under the impression that police and authorities are unable to correct the worsening situation of law and order. It’s like, if a broken window left untended is a sign that nobody cares and it could lead to more serious damage, so disorderly behaviour left untended in a social setup is a sign that nobody cares and leads to more serious crime, as well as urban decay and fear of crime. That’s what we are experiencing in our urban cities. Interestingly, zero-tolerance policing was derived from an academic paper advancing the “broken windows” theory. Where city authorities failed to replace one broken window in a housing development, it was observed, other windows would end up being broken. It had given people the impression that a place was unloved, and some people had responded with further acts of vandalism. So, is with littering, begging or any other form of anti-social behaviour, tolerate any of it and you are in fact encouraging it.

While the “fixing” of such anti-social behaviour need a sense that develops the legal justification for order maintenance and correction. There are plenty of examples existed across the literature that can be used as a lesson to our advantage. Among many of the successful applications to restore order in society, the best example could be applied in our social set up to restore our social order again are already practiced in New York City, namely zero-tolerance policing.

In order to implement any of the tried example, first we have to identify and understand our existed problems of disorder behaviour in our urban-settings. Disorder behaviour is usually interpreted as street crimes including robbery, street prostitution, encroachment of roads & streets, graffiti, aggressive begging, youths hanging out on street corners intimidating elderly people, loud music and drug dealing etc. These situations create fear on the part of citizens in a neighbourhood. When citizens came across to such incidents, they usually frightened and generally respond in two ways. They withdraw physically from public places, and when they do so, in fact, they withdraw those specific and normal social controls that tend to operate in the environment serving as natural surveillance. Once that social control or the natural surveillance is gone and the good citizens are withdrawn from the streets, what we have then is an invitation to perpetrators of serious crime. It’s not necessarily the perpetrators of low-level misbehaviour that will carry out more serious crimes. But eventually you have this invitation extended to perpetrators of more serious crime, and the neighbourhood essentially moves along a path towards greater levels of crime, and to a potential spiral into decline. That’s the transition and decline of a society into a more frightened society with full of social disorder and we are experiencing this situation on a routine basis in our social life.

I have already indicated that there are many examples across the cities of the world where public spaces have been successfully reclaimed, one notable place is the city of New York.  But a question still remained under the microscope to find that what attribute these successes to the actions of the police, as opposed to other agencies in the community? There are certain strategies adopted by the police to combat this social disorder along with notable theories by the criminologists to help reduce the social deviance at a particular space.

The theory of “Broken Windows” explaining social disorder attracted many law enforcement agencies across the world. Many argued that the best test of the broken-windows idea is not New York City, but New York subway. The only change that brought down the crime rate in the subway was the implementation of order maintenance approaches to deal with disorder and to deal with fare beating (fare-trippers), which was an enormous problem. Interestingly, the zero-tolerance policy not only helped to reduce disorder at the subway but brought down the murder rate in New York. The NYPD soon noticed that the people they were catching for minor offences often turned out to be involved in more serious crime, too. The person they apprehended for jumping over a barrier to avoid a train fare also turned out, after a little investigation, to be someone who was wanted for car-jacking. The prosecution of minor crimes, in other words, turned out to be a way into prosecuting major ones. But this effect only works if the police start catching people for minor offences.

During the initial period of zero-tolerance policing between 1993 and 1996 arrests increased by 23%. The type of arrests reflected the strategy of targeting low level public order offences and minor drug offences – arrests for misdemeanour rose by 40% and arrests for misdemeanour of drug offences rose by 97%. By way of contrast, arrests for more serious offences (felonies) rose by 5% during the same period. A significant part of zero-tolerance policing has also involved attempts at regulating various aspects of public expression. In particular this has involved refusals to permit processions, marches and rallies.

This does not mean that police have to adopt a high arrest and prosecution type of strategy. But initially police may need a period of high arrests until people really learn that it mean and what police say. To achieve this end police authorities, need to bring in every actor in the criminal justice system and also the participation of various groups within the community to back up the police action. The authorities need to have social service providers on board. It is with that broad cooperation that police get the most effective examples of this kind of program working. What is important is that police must get everyone to the table by not excluding any groups within the community.

Furthermore, criminal justice system and particularly the police must be seen as helping victims to get full support from the community, without compensating the victims no strategy would last longer. People want to see results physically with the onset of a public program and cannot wait until the reports are compiled in favour of a successful crime prevention strategy. Despite the best intentions by the police, any strategy including “broken windows” approach can create a climate with certain predictable consequences, such as the abuse of police powers or the harassment of youths. To reduce such fears, police have to work harder to make sure its property is understood, because zero-tolerance policing is a powerful tool that is subject to a lot of abuse. It could be as fearful as the criminal investigation because it has the power of abuse, as we know that investigation is conducted with torture, but nobody suggests that we should not do criminal investigations. Similarly, order maintenance is a powerful tool that can be abused.

We understand the dangers of abuse, but for every powerful strategy there’s always that danger. We cannot be hostage to extreme ideology that always conspired when police try to restore order as the poor people are suffering. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to poor communities. There are areas in many cities of Pakistan in which we literally lost control, where drug dealers and gangs literally controlled the entire neighbourhoods, and people are living in absolute terror. Before the people with extreme ideology start to say that there are no policing solutions to these problems and we should decenter the police from crime prevention activity. We have to reverse this train of thought. We have to own the ‘crime problem’ as a community. If we put together the invigorated police department with a mobilized community, we can have a big tipping point. This was the important lesson from the New York story.

First of all, disorder and the problems in neighbourhoods have to be carefully defined, they are very, very different even in cities and neighbourhoods within the Pakistan. This would make easy to get into the law of the instrument.  But we have to keep in mind that if we give a small child a hammer and everything, he or she encounters needs hammering. We have to avoid such situation and determine that crime prevention takes place basically in four ways.  By persuading people to behave, and by restoring order, by reduction of opportunities or solving problems and four, by police presence. We ought to be focusing on prevention in those terms, of course, I am taking it directly from Sir Robert Peel.

Masud Khabeki is adjunct faculty Criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi