Labour Conference: How a zero tolerance policy could backfire

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THE WALPOLE estate in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, is an ideal "hot spot" for Tony Blair's policy of zero-tolerance policing which he outlined for the 20 most crime-ridden estates and inner-city areas in England and Wales in yesterday's conference speech

The pounds 32m initiative will concentrate on cracking down on persistent offenders, car crime, anti-social behaviour and offences against children and black people.

Under the proposals local authorities and the police will draw up lists of the most lawless housing estates and city areas or "hot spots" from which 20 sites will be chosen to receive extra resources from next April. Crimes that will be targeted include burglary, offences at school, problems at children's homes, racial attacks, alcohol-fuelled incidents, anti-social behaviour, robbery and violence.

The Walpole estate would seem to fit the bill. Four years ago it was blighted by burglary, disorder and violent crime; gangs of youths roamed and terrorised with impunity. Then another Home Office scheme called "Biteback" applied intelligence rather than blanket force, targeting burglars, gathering information and reducing the repeat burglary rate by 70 per cent.

Penal reformers are wary of the new proposed "macho policing" warning it could result in "inner-city riots". Home Office research has also questioned the effectiveness of the American style system.

In calling for "zero tolerance" of crime, Mr Blair pointed to the success of such policing strategies in places like Huddersfield and Leicester.

A number of anti-crime measures will be used to reduce lawlessness, including policing in which the authorities take action against any offence, however small, the concentration on persistent offenders, better home security and "diversion projects" such as special areas where teenagers are allowed to spray graffiti.

The widescale use of zero tolerance is a tacit admittance by the Government that many of the current policing tactics and the increasing number of people being jailed is failing to turn the tide on crime.

However, latest research from the Home Office warned there were "large question marks" over its long-term effects. It warned that "over zealous" policing "can lead to poor police-community relations".

Zero tolerance is based on the American "broken window" theory, which argues that allowing a climate of disorder to engulf a community would lead to more serious crime.

The approach was championed in Britain by Detective Superintendent Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough. He gained national prominence by his use of zero tolerance, which saw the crime level fall inCleveland.

However, the policy was criticised after Det Supt Mallon was suspended and a major inquiry was set up into allegations that officers from Middlesbrough CID were threatening suspects and offering drugs for information.

Back in Huddersfield, Detective Chief Inspector Chris Gregg prefers to talk tactics rather than slogans.

He said: "There's no point in deploying officers at random hoping to catch someone doing something. You must target your resources effectively."