The big issue? Safer streets
Suzanne Moore recommends zero tolerance for liberal critics of Tony Blair's support for a US-style clampdown on petty crime, while Jason Bennetto examines whether such tactics by the police actually work
Since when, we might ask, did it become right-wing to care about what happens on our streets? Since when is it right-wing to acknowledge that many of us feel unsafe? Since Jack Straw upset everyone with his tirade about squeegee merchants and aggressive beggars,that's when.
Straw may be misguided in trying to out-Howard the hard man himself but to ignore what is going on in our streets as we wincingly hand over our change to teenagers wrapped in cheap sleeping bags is not enough.
Many of those concerned about the erosion of civil liberties that zero tolerance operations may entail do not use the streets much. They are forever encased in their cars. Those who think graffiti is a wonderfully expressive art form are unlikely to live in areas covered with misspelt racist slogans, nor will they need to use the public phone boxes wallpapered with cards detailing the abilities of a range of young and busty "models".
I don't blame Blair for being frightened of King's Cross. I lived there for more than 10 years and I ended up not so much frightened as depressed by the range of detritus, animal, vegetable and mineral, that litters its streets. There had always been beggars and prostitutes and drugs and the flop houses but there was a sense of community quite unlike anything else I had experienced in London. I liked the street life, there were always so many people around that I felt safe.
"You live in Kings Cross?" strangers would say to me. "I'm so sorry." But I wasn't sorry at all. I loved it. Then things changed. Or I changed.
A new set of Italian heroin dealers moved in, shortly followed by crack dealers. At residents' meetings the police would explain that they were actually decreasing the number of officers on the streets. It was difficult not to believe in some conspiracy theory which involved all the drugs and prostitution in London being deliberately contained in certain designated areas, Kings Cross being one of them.
My children found used syringes, and abandoned condoms on the stairs of my block of flats. At my daughter's school, some kids retrieving a football stumbled upon four or five guys shooting up behind the wall. Nothing was sacred any more. Children's pushchairs would be stolen, gold chains snatched from the neck of the Asian woman shopkeeper.
Doors would be kicked in for the sake of a second-hand portable TV. Tattooed girls who could barely keep their eyes open would approach punters in broad daylight and abuse them if their services were not required. Even the winos who barked in to the night started pushing little bags of heroin on a sale-or-return basis. The dealer across the road from me was finally busted after a shoot- out with the police.
I received a questionnaire from Camden council asking whether I used the local amenities. Did they mean that stinky little patch of grass which was full of dogshit and drunken Glaswegians? No, I didn't take my children for picnics there actually.
Now none of this was life-threatening. Many people live in far worse circumstances but all I know is that it gets you down. Petty crime may be petty but you can still feel imprisoned by it. The old ladies on my block were terrified to walk around at all and no amount of statistics about how their fear of crime was out of proportion to the likelihood of anything happening to them would help them.
They were afraid. I was afraid for my children. I wouldn't let them play on the streets and I believe that children like adults should play on the streets.
Of course we should be intolerant of homelessness, not the homeless and we should be aware that zero tolerance polices have to mean more than a form of street cleansing. But to accuse Blair of pandering to voters on this whole issue misses the point. Public space is a battleground and all this talk of community is a fantasy if we do not feel we own the spaces we share. It is in no one's interest to further criminalise the homeless. Shifting the new undesirables up the road a bit is a short-term solution. But there is more to it than that.
If zero tolerance campaigns seem almost entirely negative by inhibiting how we behave on the streets, there are also positive steps to be taken to repopulate those streets. There is safety in numbers, as any woman knows. We also know who it is we are afraid of.
Rather than curfews to make us feel safer I would like to see a change in licensing laws so that the 24-hour city can become more than an idea. One feels safer walking in the early hours among the hordes of cappuccino drinkers on Soho pavements than on any deserted street.
Anyone, whether a charming beggar or aggressive Big Issue seller, is also less frightening if there are others around.
Zero tolerance policies fall down when they fail to distinguish between different forms of street life. We do not need the purging of buskers, except that man at Finsbury Park who has never been able to sing, in order to feel safe.
Feeling safe is the key. Some police officers will even admit that the kind of modern policing that seeks consumer satisfaction is more interested in making us feel safe than ensuring that we actually are safe.
I moved out of King's Cross in the end to an area that has as many problems and as much crime. Drugs and prostitution are just round the corner rather than on my doorstep and I like it better that way.
I do not want to live under siege any more than I want to live in Singapore. I want the streets to be full, not empty, street life to be richer, not poorer. Those concerned with civil liberties must recognise that as long as we are afraid of the streets themselves then one of our biggest freedoms has already been lost. While they are at it they might also like to consider whose liberty they are protecting - the right of people to terrorise public space or the right of the rest of us simply to inhabit it?
The "zero tolerance" approach to crime - in which any misdemeanour, however minor, is stamped upon by the police - has gained a new disciple, Tony Blair. He has joined a bandwagon whose passengers already include John Major, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and his Labour shadow, Jack Straw. They all appear to believe that one of the modern panaceas of crime is to pour large numbers of foot patrol officers into a "problem area" and ensure all laws are enforced.
They argue that by clamping down on "minor" crime and nuisance - begging and abusive drunks, cyclists riding on the pavement, litter louts - many of the more serious offences and offenders will be eliminated.
The enthusiasm for zero tolerance comes from its apparent successful introduction into New York's crime-ridden streets, and a pilot scheme in London's seedy Kings Cross .
However, closer examination shows the scheme may be more about feelgood policing than about stopping serious crime.
Zero tolerance was greatly influenced by the criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling, whose 1982 article, Broken Windows, argued that leaving a broken window unrepaired would encourage vandals to wreck the rest.
The theory was put to the test in New York about three years ago. Under the direction of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his former police commissioner, William Bratton, the city's police made a priority of cracking down on "quality of life crimes", such as graffiti and begging.
British politicians and police officers have flocked to New York to admire the results.
A week ago Mayor Giuliani announced that a city once notorious for its violence now ranks 144th on the FBI's comparison of crime in America's 189 largest cities. The city's murder total last year fell below 1,000 for the first time in nearly 30 years. The total is now less than half the figure recorded in 1990. Theft and burglary have also dropped.
But many criminologists believe other, more influential factors are responsible for the city's change of fortune. There has been a demographic shift in the American population, with fewer young males, the group most prone to violent crime. The turf wars between rival drug gangs are considered to have stabilised and many of the more bloodthirsty offenders are now behind bars.
Evidence that this is a national trend is shown by the fact that about 125 American cities have seen dramatic falls in murder rates.
But how does this approach translate to Britain, which is not yet overrun by drugs and guns?
In the six-week-long Kings Cross experiment, an extra 20 to 25 police officers were redeployed to provide 24-hour, high-profile foot patrols. They were given strict instructions not to tolerate any law breakers or threatening actions. This included aggressive drunks, pushy beggars, people throwing litter, and drug users. At any one time there were 20 to 40 officers working the patch.
The flurry of arrests slowed to a trickle after a few days. But police believe the crime rate, for both small and big offences, dropped significantly during the period because of their tactics. Furthermore, they say, two neighbouring police areas did not suffer an upsurge in offences from displaced miscreants. Residents were also happy with the results.
So zero tolerance is a big success? Not necessarily. Scotland Yard admits that keeping so many officers on patrol would eventually affect other services and could not be sustained for long without extra resources.
With police forces throughout Britain struggling to make ends meet, they do not have the spare cash to lavish on hordes of extra beat bobbies.
It is also too early to tell whether the Kings Cross scheme has reduced crime permanently. And with violent crimes rising by 10 per cent to 331,300 in England and Wales last year, the public may feel there are other priorities.
Chief constables recognise these dilemmas, and Scotland Yard appears to acknowledge that one of the most important benefits from the pilot scheme was the feelgood factor.
As a Metropolitan Police spokesman acknowledged: "By maintaining a higher police presence [in Kings Cross] we are reassuring the public and reducing the fear of crime. The idea was to tackle [that] fear."
In an ideal world the police would make big cuts in the level of crime as well as making the public feel safe. Though it undoubtedly makes good political sense to sweep troublemakers off the streets, it may be a luxury we cannot afford.
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