Rising crime

Published : Jan 05, 2002 00:00 IST

Is zero tolerance policing the answer?

NEW Commissioners of Police are to take position in New York City and Philadelphia very shortly. While the change in New York follows the election of a new Mayor, Commissioner John F. Timoney's exit from Philadelphia coincides with his decision to move into a lucrative job in the private sector. The attention given by the U.S. media to these developments has been extensive, highlighting how crucial a role the police fill in U.S. society. A well-read and extremely vibrant policeman of Irish descent, Timoney - whom I met recently and was greatly impressed with - brought a breath of fresh air into Philadelphia, a city known for high crime. He came down heavily on cooked-up police statistics and encouraged free registration of crime. He mingled actively with the community. His unusual and frequent cycle tours of his jurisdiction in particular won him many admirers. His style of policing was something that the city will not forget for quite some time. Timoney possibly carried 'zero tolerance policing' without its rough edges from his NYPD (New York Police Department) days, where his mentor Bill Bratton is vividly remembered to this day for lending substance to a concept that has invited varied feelings.

Close on the heels of the changes in police leadership taking place in the two major cities comes the news of the flux in the crime map in the United States. Recently released statistics indicate that after several years of dropping crime the situation is showing signs of a reversal. What should be of great concern to criminologists and administrators is the fact that in the 18 cities surveyed, homicides have risen in several, including Boston and Phoenix. (The slight decline reported in New York City is understandable in the context of September 11.) One theory that seeks to explain the rise is the sagging economy, leading to an unprecedented number of people being laid off from their jobs. Accompanied by this is the lesser attention paid to domestic violence during the past few years, which possibly accounts for a sharp increase in family killings.

Any perceptible change in crime trends makes me sit up and ask several questions. One of these is whether the police have failed to take adequate preventive measures. Secondly, how do politicians look upon a dynamic crime map? In this context, Crime and Politics (Oxford University Press, 2001) by Ted Gest of the Jerry Lee Centre of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, a book that I read recently, provides some insights. It contains a fascinating account of how Congress and successive Presidents have sought to tackle a difficult crime situation and how political factors have influenced crime-fighting strategies. For instance, the 1960s saw stiff resistance by Congress to allocate Federal dollars to fight crime. Ironically, three decades later, not a whimper of protest was heard when President Bill Clinton proposed Federal financing of 100,000 community police officers. Here, I cannot but draw reader attention to the near-unanimity among the States in India in opposing a Home Ministry proposal to create a federal investigating agency, apart from the CBI, to handle crimes impinging on national security. There are political overtones to this rigid stand. Will the new scenario caused by the attack on Parliament induce the States to modify their stand? Gest believes that perceptions on how to deal with crime have been elastic and erratic because of personal biases and political idiosyncrasies. On the whole, his is a well-written survey, the like of which is desirable but has not been attempted in India. We certainly need such a history of crime in India and how politicians have looked at crime.

One of Gest's references is to 'zero tolerance policing', a term that has been as loosely bandied about as 'community policing'. It all started with a classic essay "Broken Windows" (Atlantic Monthly, 1982), by two eminent thinkers, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, way back in the 1980s. Their thesis was that if a community ignored even trivial signs of disorder, it was bound to pay a heavy price in the form of high crime. For instance, if a broken window of a private residence or a public building in full vision of a passerby remains unattended for several months, it sends out a clear message that nobody in the locality, be it a citizen or an official, really cared for order. In Wilson and Kelling's view, this is an open invitation to crime.

The corollary is that any crime prevention strategy should start with rooting out decay and neglect in public places. For instance, if there is an old dilapidated building, which is unoccupied, the police should, in conjunction with the community, ensure that it does not become a haven for anti-social elements and the venue for selling drugs or other contraband. Similarly, loiterers who just hang around a street without any purposeful activity need to be questioned so that they understand that they are accountable and can be easily identified if they commit infractions of the law. This Wilson-Kelling essay contributed greatly to the flowering of the theory of community policing, and later to problem-solving policing.

A further offshoot is 'zero tolerance policing', although Wilson and Kelling are said to be appalled now by the distortion of what they had advocated in the 1980s. For instance, driving through New Delhi some time ago, I was amused to see a Delhi Traffic Police signboard identifying a 'zero tolerance' area. The impression that this gave was that traffic violations elsewhere could go unpunished, but not here! In Kelling's opinion, zero tolerance is the "bastard child" of the broken windows theory. He adds: "People equate what I have written to zero tolerance and do so without any reference to the elaboration of that idea into policy."

Bill Bratton, who has been closely associated with zero tolerance, was NYPD chief for over four years from January 1994. He was earlier head of the New York Transit Police Authority. He set himself the ambitious task of reducing crime in a city that had acquired notoriety for high crime, especially in some areas such as Times Square. His officers took the cue from him and went about the exercise with a clinical zeal that served notice on stragglers and vagabonds who contributed to vice, if not conventional crime. In such sweeping operations, not surprisingly, even some normally law-abiding citizens, guilty only of minor deviance such as throwing litter on streets, were pulled up. On the whole, there came about an ambience that gave little licence even for acts bordering on only a mere lack of civic sense.

The number of arrests and stops by the police went up dramatically and statistics were soon produced to prove a substantial drop in crime. The change of scene in the heart of Manhattan, such as the area surrounding Times Square, was remarkable. Litter became nearly non-existent and porno shops closed down quickly. The average New Yorker, for long weighed down by the image of an awesome city, was deeply impressed with the transformation. Paeans of praise were heaped on Bratton, who became a near folk hero. Almost instantly, the New York model was being cited as one fit for emulation by large cities battered by high crime. Suddenly, it looked as if a magic formula had been invented to take care of a spurt in urban crime in any part of the world.

Everything was hunky dory until a clash of egos erupted between Rudy Giuliani, the high-profile Mayor, and an equally visible Police Commissioner Bratton to sour the situation. The latter bowed out of office soon. The new Commissioner, Howard Safir, did not seem to share all of his predecessor's enthusiasm for zero tolerance, although he did not abdicate it totally. Almost, simultaneously, the earlier muted criticism of this style of policing became more audible. Claims of a fall in crime were disputed and issues of democratic propriety of an aggressive policing raised. I can recall a friend of mine in the U.K. Police visiting the NYPD to study the system categorically telling me that zero tolerance was undemocratic and it clearly violated the citizen's fundamental rights.

Another recent book that I have just finished reading is Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City. A few essays in this collection are distressed that zero tolerance had unleashed repression against the minorities in the city. According to Jennifer Wynn of the Correctional Association of New York, public hostility towards the police and the rate of police misconduct had risen greatly since the introduction of zero tolerance. A specific charge of harassment and humiliation is levelled against NYPD personnel. For instance, of the 45,000 stops by the police during 1997-98, only about 9,500 resulted in arrests. Voices of resentment have been heard from the police ranks themselves. One NYPD captain, with 20 years' experience, is reported to have said: "I think we have gone overboard with zero tolerance. Cops are being held to unrealistic expectations to arrest people, and the result is that the community now sees us as occupiers, not problem-solvers."

WITH a disconcerting volume of crime, how does zero tolerance fit into the Indian environment? Crime figures in India are much less credible than in the U.S. This is because the 911 telephonic service in the U.S. - available in most parts of the country - records every call for police assistance and assigns a number. Suppression of reported crime in the U.S., in order to dress up statistics, therefore becomes difficult and risky. The crime situation in India becomes aggravated by the chaos that dominates the street in the four major metropolises. The police forces in these cities have no doubt been growing rapidly. But the chores assigned to them have also been growing. The diversion of manpower to VIP security duties and to handle political demonstrations has cost the citizen dearly. Crime prevention is therefore a low priority. This is not because the average policeman is disinterested. He simply does not have the time or the energy to pay attention to an aspect of his charter that was considered all-important until a few decades ago.

Conventional crime such as theft, robbery and house-breaking has soared, but does not necessarily get reflected in police statistics. Even less importance is given to disorderly conduct such as drunken behaviour in public, littering of streets and the obstruction of traffic caused by indiscriminate parking of vehicles, and an alarming growth of hawkers on sidewalks. Although the law-abiding citizen would like such instances to be tackled firmly, he is disappointed by police insensitivity to such conduct. He does not understand that even if the police showed interest in this type of deviance, there is little enthusiasm for it from the community at large. While the judiciary has been supportive, action on the ground has been uninspiring for a variety of reasons, chief of which is the lack of political will. It is widely known that any sweeping action to remove beggars or hawkers is considered inexpedient by the powers that be. The former are supposed to form a vote bank during elections that can hardly be alienated.

Zero tolerance is markedly punitive, much more than other styles of policing. More important, it smacks of anti-democratism, which could pose problems to the political leadership that holds the reins of power at any point of time. Any police chief who wants to experiment with it could run into an immediate conflict with politicians. Hence it is a difficult style that cannot be tried without building consensus all around. I am sure police officers in India will ponder before they leap.

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