Zero-Tolerance Policing Essay

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Zero-tolerance policing is a fairly modern police practice that encourages police officers to aggressively  patrol  and  enforce  their  formal  legal authority (i.e., arrest)  with little to no discretion. The targets of zero-tolerance policies have usually been less serious minor “quality-of-life” offenses. These physical and social forms of disorder include graffiti, littering, public intoxication, aggressive panhandling, prostitution, open-air drug markets, and other forms of disorderly conduct. For this reason, some have referred to zero tolerance as aggressive order-maintenance policing. The justification for this approach can be traced to the incivilities hypothesis contained in the broken windows theory of crime and disorder. This theory argues that minor incivilities, if ignored or left unchecked, can encourage more serious crimes to take hold of a community.

Numerous studies have examined the impact of zero-tolerance policing on crime. The most commonly cited example of the success of zero tolerance is the evidence of crime reduction in New York City. However, some have criticized zero-tolerance policing on the grounds that it only provides a short-term solution  (e.g., arrest) to long-term problems (e.g., drug addiction and homelessness). Critics have also questioned whether the aggressiveness of zero-tolerance policing unfairly targets residents living in predominantly poor minority neighborhoods, resulting in further strained relationships between police officers and citizens.

Zero-tolerance policing was popularized when this approach was embraced in New York City in the 1990s. Following the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor in 1993 and the appointment of William Bratton  as police commissioner in 1994, the New York Police Department (NYPD) reoriented patrol activities under a strategy titled Reclaiming  the  Public  Spaces  of  New  York. NYPD  officers  began  to  vigorously  enforce actions against minor forms of crime and disorder. Some of the targets of this strategy included aggressive public begging or panhandling, public intoxication, petty drug dealers, prostitution, and fare jumpers in the subway system.

In addition to the exclusive use of arrests to deal with these problems, officers were also encouraged to aggressively stop, frisk, and run warrant checks on suspicious persons. It was believed that this proactive approach was an effective way to get illegal firearms off of the street and served to deter crime and violence due to the visible and active presence of the police. Due, in part,  to the perceived and well-publicized success of this effort in New York City, many cities in the United States and the United Kingdom have attempted to replicate these zero-tolerance strategies in their own police departments.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Zero-Tolerance Policing

In 1982, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,”  a landmark article  by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, was published in The Atlantic. In this article, based on their observations of police activity and neighborhood life in Newark, New Jersey, Wilson and Kelling argued that quality-of-life environmental disorders, like graffiti, boarded-up buildings, and abandoned lots with overgrown weeds, as well as social disorder, such as prostitutes, rowdy and unsupervised teenagers, and aggressive panhandlers, were damaging to neighborhood life. These symbolic “broken windows” signal to active and potential criminals  that  the  community lacks the social controls necessary to inhibit criminal behavior. These neighborhood incivilities are hypothesized to generate crime through several different pathways. First, the presence of this physical and social disorder produces substantial fear and dissatisfaction with neighborhood life among residents and business owners. It is argued that this fear encourages residents to avoid public spaces and inhibits their willingness to intervene with active forms of social control. With fewer law-abiding citizens  providing  surveillance  in these public spaces, disorderly persons are further emboldened and predatory criminals are attracted to these areas. This feeds a vicious cycle in which the quantity and seriousness of crime and disorder increases and upstanding citizens become further socially isolated.

There is conflicting evidence regarding the success of zero-tolerance policing to reduce these incivilities and corresponding crime. Arguably the most commonly cited example of the success of zero-tolerance policing is New York City. During the 1990s, improvements in terms of visible signs of physical disorder and social incivilities could be seen in the subways, midtown Manhattan, and Central Park, for example. In a detailed analysis of crime patterns in New York City, Franklin Zimring highlights the dramatic decline in Part I Index Offenses, which are reported as part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). During the decade of the 1990s, all index offenses showed substantial declines, with homicide declining 73 percent, robbery  down  70  percent,  and  vehicle thefts dropping by 73 percent. The dramatic reduction in homicides from 1990 to 2000 represents an annual decline of more than 1,500 homicide victims between these years.

While these improvements in the amount of crime and disorder are undeniable, skeptics have questioned whether they can be directly attributable to the zero-tolerance practices of the NYPD. For one, there were a variety of organizational changes that occurred in the NYPD simultaneous with the adoption of zero tolerance. The adoption of a new management and crime measurement system (Compstat) and dramatic increases in police manpower occurred during the 1990s and roughly during the same time that the NYPD adopted zero-tolerance practices.  For example, during the 1990s the number of sworn police officers employed by the NYPD increased by approximately 44 percent. It is difficult to separate the independent effects of these organizational, personnel, and patrol practice changes from the zero-tolerance strategy.

Second, some have noted that other U.S. cities experienced similarly dramatic improvements in public safety during the same decade without adopting zero-tolerance policing.  In her thorough case study of New York City’s experiment with zero tolerance, Judith Greene notes that San Diego, California, witnessed equal reductions in violent crime without adopting zero-tolerance practices or dramatically increasing police personnel in the manner that New York did. For example, over the past two decades homicide in San Diego has declined approximately 75 percent and the violent crimes of robbery and serious assault have decreased by close to 60 percent. Unlike New York City, San Diego has enjoyed these dramatic improvements without the corresponding increase in arrests and citizen complaints alleging police misconduct. San Diego was able to accomplish these improvements in public safety by embracing a community and problem-oriented approach to policing. Advocates of this approach argue that it is preferable to a zero-tolerance strategy because it fosters greater collaboration with community members and provides a more comprehensive partnership-based response to what are often complex neighborhood problems. In response, some proponents of zero tolerance have argued that in neighborhoods plagued with high levels of crime and disorder, it may be necessary for the police to first employ an aggressive proactive approach in order to reduce fear and encourage residents to engage in collaborative problem-solving.

Criticism of Zero-Tolerance Policing

Zero-tolerance policing has been criticized on a number of grounds. First, unlike community and problem-oriented approaches that seek to identify and address the underlying causes of crime and disorder,  zero-tolerance strategies generally fail to engage in this problem-solving process. For example, if chronic drug abuse is an underlying factor contributing to prostitution, it is unclear how the exclusive reliance on aggressive enforcement and arrest is a long-term solution to this problem. Second, critics have argued that the aggressive crime control tactics central to zero-tolerance  policing  are responsible  for strained police-community relations.  After the adoption of zero-tolerance policing in New York City, the citizen complaints filed annually with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) increased more than 60 percent between 1992 and 1996.

Further,  it has been argued  that  aggressive zero-tolerance policing has had a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority communities. The Office of the New York State Attorney General investigated racial disproportions in the “stop and frisk” of pedestrians by the NYPD after the adoption of zero-tolerance strategies. The report revealed that although African Americans constitute only 26 percent of New York City’s population, they composed just over 50 percent of all persons stopped. The disproportionate stop and frisk of minority residents was not only present in predominantly minority neighborhoods (i.e., precincts) but was especially pronounced in predominantly white neighborhoods. Further, the rate at which these stops resulted in the arrest of the suspicious pedestrian was substantially higher for African Americans compared with whites. The implications of this are that minority residents are far more likely to perceive that they have been unfairly targeted by the aggressive crime control tactics associated with zero-tolerance policing.


  1. Bass, Sandra. “Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions.” Social Justice, v.28/1 (2001).
  2. Greene, Judith A. “Zero Tolerance: A Case Study of Police Policies and Practices in New York City.” Crime & Delinquency, v.45/2 (1999).
  3. Newburn, Tim and Trevor Jones. “Symbolizing Crime Control: Reflections on Zero Tolerance.” Theoretical Criminology, v.11/2 (2007).
  4. Zimring, Franklin E. The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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