October 29, 2002
Before his transformation into New York's symbol of recovery from the terrror attacks, Rudolph Giuliani earned a special mention in that city's history as the mayor who halved the number of crimes committed in the city and cut the murder rate by nearly two-thirds. Before Giuliani, crime had reached "epidemic" proportions in some parts of New York. The drug trade and its attendant violence turned certain areas into no-go zones each night and violent crime had become so commonplace that a fatalistic acceptance of the city's new character was emerging.
The famous "zero tolerance" policy worked from the premise that small crimes encourage larger ones. So, while the police could not directly control the rate of murders, rapes and other violent crime, they could alter the context or "culture" in which these took place by suppressing the petty crimes which framed them. This theory was based on the work of two criminologists who said that indifference to small deviations from a desirable norm (such as broken windows that were left unrepaired) encouraged larger transgressions such as street crime and drug dealing. One of them wrote: "[m]uggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighbourhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place."
Writing about the success of this approach in a wonderful little book called The Tipping Point, the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell traced the evolution of "zero-tolerance" from the city's subway system which decided to eliminate grafitti from its cars and then to crack down on fare-beating (an estimated 170, 000 people avoided paying a token each day). Police had avoided arresting fare-beaters because of the amount of time they wasted doing it (the paperwork usually took a whole day to complete). After thinking hard about the problem, Transit Police chief William Bratton improved his staff's facilities, reducing this time to an hour. Then he chose several high-profile stations and made a large number of arrests as publicly as possible.
One in seven fare-beaters had outstanding warrants for previous offences and one in twenty was carrying some kind of weapon. Fewer armed men meant fewer violent confrontations and eventually, the likelihood of being stopped and searched discouraged many potential felons from walking around with any kind of weapon. The fare-beating arrests therefore had a significant knock-on effect on other crimes. Transit Police arrests quintupled between 1990 and 1994 (the year Giuliani was elected) and Bratton became head of the New York Police Department which then implemented the subway strategies on a much wider scale. The policy was a great success, but it was not done with a wave of a wand. Incremental changes in the subway "culture" combined with improved policing and long term administrative support to produce the sharp drop in crime rates.
Since then "zero tolerance" has been touted as a quick fix for any city with a crime problem. Mexico City, for example, recently signed a US$ 4.3 million contract with Giuliani's consulting firm for advice on how to lessen the city's chaos and carry out similar law enforcement reforms. Whether Mexico's very different economy and public culture will be able to underwrite the kind of change Giuliani is being asked to deliver is anyone's guess, but some locals are doubtful. The Christian Science Monitor reports: "Only 3 percent of Mexicans have confidence in the police. 'The difference is, in the US, people aspire to be law-abiding citizens,' says Mario Arroyo, a researcher at the International Center for Safety Studies in Mexico City. 'Here in Mexico, respect goes to those who evade the law.'"
Could "zero tolerance" work in Guyana? Maybe, but probably not as it ought to. How much radical change is possible given the erosion of our civic norms? Blocked drains and unweeded parapets, potholes, decrepit public buildings, people urinating in public, speeding minibuses, overloud music, traffic lights that don't always work, casual littering, spitting and obscenity - these create "streets in which potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions." Our society has defaulted to "full tolerance" - and easy cures are a fantasy. Giving policemen bigger guns or faster cars is not the only way to tackle a crime problem. We must also consider their salaries and training, and the wider public context of our many "broken windows". We should not blame them for our failure to address the poverty and despair which underlie so much of the recent violence. The recent shutdown of businesses showed that crime cannot occur in a vacuum. Neither can solutions.