Zero tolerance no match for community policing

April 21, 1999|By Henry H. Brownstein

ALMOST everyone knows by now of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, in a hail of 41 bullets fired by New York City police on Feb. 4.

The incident has polarized New York, prompting hundreds of people of all ages, races and creeds to be arrested during 15 days of protests over the police slaying.

The immediate focus of the demonstrations was the killing. But the broader focus is New York's so-called "zero tolerance" policy toward minor offenses supported by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Among those arrested for demonstrating was NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who's considered a likely candidate for mayor of Baltimore.

Interestingly, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, another likely mayoral candidate, has called for the implementation of a zero tolerance policy here.

So, it's quite possible that zero tolerance will be a campaign issue in Baltimore's mayoral race this year.

The problem with zero tolerance stems from the way it was implemented by the Street Crimes Unit of the New York City Police Department. This plain-clothes unit began making sweeps of the streets, stopping and frisking large numbers of people for minor offenses. Last year, the unit recorded searches of 45,000 people, most of them young black or Latino men. But many other searches likely went unrecorded.

Stop and frisk

It's widely believed that the unit's stop-and-frisk program was a key factor in bringing down New York's high crime rate. However, serious crime began to fall in New York in 1991 after then-Mayor David Dinkins and then-Police Commissioner Lee Brown revived the city's dormant community-policing program that put officers on the street with the resources and training to help solve community problems.

For example, under that strategy, a woman who is being threatened by her boyfriend would probably be taken to a shelter for abused women by a community-policing officer, easing what could have become a criminal matter.

Zero tolerance policing was supposedly designed to crack down on quality-of-life crimes, such as loitering, littering and scribbling graffiti, but the number of arrests in New York for such offenses actually decreased in the 1990s. While proponents of zero tolerance have argued that Mr. Giuliani's emphasis on aggressive policing resulted in an even greater decline in crime, no statistical or scientific evidence supports such claims.

Positive results

The experts do not know exactly what makes crime rates vary over time, and we cannot even be sure that policing makes a difference. Yet in many cities that experienced reductions in serious crime during this decade, at least some credit was given to community policing efforts.

According to a study in Illinois, Chicago residents overwhelmingly credit a community policing effort there -- one of the largest such programs in the country -- for falling crime rates.

A national study of community policing programs in cities as varied as Louisville, Ky., Portland, Ore., Norfolk, Va., and Houston found that even when crime reduction was minimal, local residents said that policing had improved.

Even if a zero tolerance policy does contribute to a reduced level of serious crimes, are the costs of such a policy even greater than its benefits? In New York, for every two complaints by citizens against the police in 1990, there were three in 1995.

In 1996, Amnesty International reported that while crime in New York was decreasing, reports of "police brutality, shootings and deaths in police custody" had increased significantly, and that two-thirds of the victims of the police belonged to racial minorities.

For communities to truly be safer, police, residents and key institutions need to work together to improve the overall quality of life there. Police need to be seen as advocates for communities, not adversaries.

If we're going to have zero tolerance for anything in Baltimore, let's have zero tolerance for communities that don't work together to improve the quality of life for all people.

Henry H. Brownstein is a professor and director of the graduate program in criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, and he is the former chief of statistical services for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. He is author of "The Rise and Fall of a Violent Crime Wave: Crack Cocaine and the Social Construction of a Crime Problem" (Harrow and Heston,1996).

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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