Zero Tolerance and Aggressive Policing (And Why to Avoid It) in Depth
– Braga, Welsh, and Schnell, 2015, p. 581.
“Aggressive order maintenance strategies that target individual disorderly behaviors do not generate significant crime reductions… As Taylor (2001) suggests, incivility reduction is rooted in a tradition of stable relationships with the community and responsiveness to local concerns. A sole commitment to increasing misdemeanor arrests stands a good chance to undermine relationships in low-income urban communities of color, where coproduction is most needed and distrust between the police and citizens is most profound (Skogan and Frydl 2004).”
Zero tolerance policing is sometimes known as “aggressive policing” or “aggressive order maintenance” and is sometimes incorrectly tied to “broken windows” policing. A zero tolerance strategy consists of stopping, questioning, and frisking pedestrians or drivers considered to be acting suspiciously and then arresting them for offenses when possible, typically for such low-level offenses as possessing marijuana. A defining difference between zero tolerance interventions and other strategies is that zero tolerance strategies are not discerning; the focus is on making stops and arrests to crack down on all types of disorder, generically defined. A common motivation is that the existence of even low-level offenses implies that an area is not well controlled, which in turn will lead to people committing more-serious crimes there.
As noted in Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015), which reviews ten zero tolerance interventions, this strategy did not generate statistically significant crime reductions, on average, and it runs risks of damaging police-community relations (Skogan and Frydl, 2004), both locally and at the national level.
That said, it is understandable why there is a great deal of support for zero tolerance: Some marquee policing interventions that have been labeled as “zero tolerance” (or, more broadly, as “broken windows”) are not. Examples of “zero tolerance” interventions in New York City—publicized, for example, in former-Superintendent William Bratton’s book Turnaround (Bratton and Knobler, 1998)—were, in fact, quite focused and should be categorized as aspects of other types of strategies. The following sections describe alternatives to zero tolerance policing, including some that have been incorrectly labeled as zero tolerance.
Alternative 1: Enforcement Against Fear-Generating Behavior
The seminal article on broken windows policing (Kelling and Wilson, 1982) has sometimes been interpreted as calling for general crackdowns on anything that could be perceived as disorder. A more precise read is that it calls for crackdowns on specified behaviors that generate fear, with key examples including intoxication, panhandling, and juveniles accosting pedestrians in ways that made those pedestrians afraid – i.e., all forms of intimidation. (The fact that these crackdowns are tightly targeted makes them a form or order enforcement, which is discussed in the problem-oriented policing strategy guide.) Similarly, consider two key crackdowns in Turnaround (Bratton and Knobler, 1998):
- Subway turnstile jumpers: Turnaround claims that turnstile jumping was a chronic reminder of lawlessness in the subways, creating a great deal of fear, and that violators were frequently people wanted for serious crimes and carrying weapons.
- Squeegee artists: Intimidation also played a role in why this group was targeted, with drivers understanding that refusing to pay for the “windshield cleaning” ran a high probability of vandalism or a robbery.
Tip: The problem-oriented policing strategy guide describes tips on talking to community members to find out crime-generating problems, which helps identify which behaviors are making community members afraid.
Alternative 2: Enforcement Against Violence-Enabling Behavior
Directly related to crackdowns on fear-generating behavior are crackdowns on disorder that directly enables lethal violence. (These are a specific type of order enforcement, which is discussed in the guide to problem-oriented policing.) A key example is the Kansas City Gun Experiment (Sherman and Rogan, 1995), a crackdown on illegal gun carrying. In the focus area, Kansas City had officers dedicated to making contacts with drivers and pedestrians, and searching for guns when possible, through a combination of safety frisks, plain-view identification of guns, and searches incident to arrest on other charges. The result was a 49-percent drop in gun crimes in the actioned area in comparison with a control area.
Tip: These were precisely directed searches looking for illegally-carried guns. These were not attempts to arrest pedestrians and drivers for any possible misdemeanor, as in zero tolerance.
Widespread searches of drivers and pedestrians—even focused ones, such as the Kansas City Gun Experiment—are the law enforcement equivalent of performing CPR on a community—appropriate for the crime equivalent of cardiac arrest, not for the crime equivalent of a broken leg. In the Kansas City Gun Experiment, for example, the focus area had close to the highest level of gun crime in the city.
Alternative 3: Improvements to the Environment—Fixing Actual Broken Windows
The original “broken windows” policing article (Kelling and Wilson, 1982) called for “crackdowns” on signs and indicators that crime is welcome in an area. Examples included the name-giving broken windows, damaged and/or abandoned cars, and graffiti. Similarly, a crackdown on disorder in New York City sought to ensure that subway trains did not enter service until any graffiti on them was painted over because graffiti was seen as a key symbol of the subway being an unsafe, crime-friendly environment.
Tip: Changing the built environment in an area to make it feel safer and less hospitable to crime and disorder is a problem-oriented policing strategy, known as "crime prevention through environmental design."
Alternative 4: Sanctions for Those Who Engage in Violence
In Braga, Welsh, and Schnell’s review of disorder policing interventions (2015), the one “aggressive order maintenance” intervention producing a strong reduction in crime consisted of disorder crackdowns, along with “traditional suppression,” specifically on known gang members in two precincts in Detroit (Bynum and Varano, 2003). That this intervention specifically targeted known gang members makes it more consistent with focused deterrence than with zero tolerance.
Decisions about which alternative strategies (or combinations of them) to use should be based on the specific crime situations being addressed. However, all strategies avoid the great inherent risks to community relations and police legitimacy that lie in the widespread and indiscriminate stopping, questioning, frisking, and arresting residents for low-level offenses. We hope that this toolkit has made clear that being proactive in preventing crime does not (and should not) simply mean zero tolerance and aggressive policing.
- Braga, Anthony A., Brandon C. Welsh, and Cory Schnell, “Can Policing Disorder Reduce Crime? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 5., No. 24, 2015, pp. 567–568.
- Bratton, William J., and Peter Knobler, Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, New York: Random House, 1998.
- Bynum, Timothy S., and Sean P. Varano, “The Anti-Gang Initiative in Detroit: An Aggressive Enforcement Approach to Gangs,” in Scott H. Decker, ed., Policing Gangs and Youth Violence, Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003, pp. 214–238.
- Kelling, George L., and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic, Vol. 249, No. 3, March 1982. As of June 29, 2017: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/
- Sherman, Lawrence W., and Dennis P. Rogan, “Effects of Gun Seizures on Gun Violence: ‘Hot Spots’ Patrol in Kansas City,” Justice Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1995, pp. 673–694.
- Skogan, Wesley, and Katleen Frydl, eds., Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004.
- Taylor, Ralph B., Breaking Away from Broken Windows, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001.