Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Zero Tolerance Policing policies are not needed in the UK.

There has been much loose chatter about the adoption of so-called 'Zero Tolerance' policing methods, to begin to make inroads into social crime environments. Jack Straw used to wax lyrical about their use and many other politicians have begun to extol the virtues of US-style policing models, as a means of tackling the inner-city gang crime culture.

As is so often the case, politicians fail to understand the reason for the adoption of these tactics in America, and they reach out for the sound-bite, as opposed to the reality.

So-called 'zero tolerance' policing grew out of 'the broken-windows theory' of urban degeneration, which posited that where early signs of decay or social damage, or the commission of minor offences was observed, by taking immediate and robust action, more serious criminal activity could be quashed in the bud, leading to a fall in crime numbers.

So popular did this theory become that it was widely adopted in a number of major US cities. It had one hugely successful, and originally unforeseen consequence, which enabled US police to make major inroads into levels of serious crime among gangs, hitherto considered impossible.

It is this aspect that politicians are lauding when they talk about 'zero tolerance', but ironically, we do not need this application in the UK.

In the US, the powers of the police to stop and search suspects for carrying drugs, illicit firearms, other weapons, or stolen goods are hugely constrained by US Federal law. In so many cases, the relevant offending items are discovered as a result of a search, which can quickly be deemed 'illegal' because the officer cannot demonstrate that he had 'probable cause' for the making of a search of the defendant or his house or his car at the time. If the search is deemed to be illegal, then any articles discovered as a result of the search, are deemed to be inadmissible in evidence, and many gang members had walked free from court despite being found in possession of serious weapons or firearms.

Such a loophole had caused great soul-searching to the US police because it meant that it was becoming well-nigh impossible to tackle street gangs when seen in the community.

This was where 'zero tolerance' came to the rescue.

Recognising that street gangs demanded high levels of 'respect or 'street cred', a concept not hitherto unknown in Tottenham or Brixton, the cops quickly realised that issuing summonses for minor offences such as jay walking, public urination, drinking alcohol in a public place or any of a list of minor 'citable' offences, would so offend the gangster's sense of dignity, that the summons would be completely ignored.

All the police then had to do was attend the summons court on the due date, and upon the defendant's non-appearance to answer the summons, obtain a warrant for his arrest. Such a warrant gave a right to enter the defendant's apartment, by force if necessary, to effect the arrest, and while lawfully in the premises, who could possibly know what other incriminating items in the form of drugs, guns, knives or stolen goods might be found in the course of the search, none of which could be challenged in court as being illegal, and the defendant would be charged accordingly.

The effectiveness of this method soon became a favourite ploy of police, indeed, special warrant squads were formed, to hit the homes and squats of the criminals, few of whom seemed to learn the lesson of the issuance of a summons, and continued to refuse to acknowledge its receipt, preferring to risk a raid sooner than appear to lose face by answering a summons!

That was the main reason behind the apparent success of 'zero tolerance' in the US, because it resulted in a very large number of hitherto perceived 'untouchables' finding themselves banged up with maximum prejudice.

We, in the UK, do not have the same problems associated with the legality of producing items seized in a 'stop and search' exercise, so the need for such actions are not called for in this country. We could and should make more use of the summonsing power under the Motor Vehicle Construction and Use Regulations to harass criminals, particularly those who like the 'cred' the possession of certain types of vehicles gives them, and we should do everything in our power to get them disqualified from driving, but we must accept that these are only disruption exercises, valid though they may be.

Let our politicians start listening to experienced police officers first about what does and does not work against criminals, and stop reaching for populist sound-bites, and we might start to get somewhere.

The first thing they must do is to begin to restore and mend the morale of police which was so damaged by the misplaced findings of the McPherson Report. They must restore the recognition that policing involves the use of 'force', it is not a social-work agency or service. Police must be allowed to become far more robust in their dealings with gangsters, and those whose actions are akin to a new model of urban terrorism, so as to begin the take the fight back to the enemy and reclaim the streets.

Let the police become more resolute in their ambition to lock up those who would use violence, intimidation, riot and affray to get their own way, and let them get the support they need from the Courts.

In the 1950's there was dangerous gang violence on the streets of West London, directed by gangs of white gangsters, and aimed at black immigrants, who were intimidated and hurt by these unwanted and largely unprovoked attacks. The courts responded by handing out very lengthy prison sentences to those who were apprehended, and it did not take long for the message to be heard. The violence was quashed in the bud. It can be done again, without needing to import other methods which simply would not work effectively here.

Rowan Bosworth-Davies is a member of the Standing Group on Organised Crime.

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