James Hart: Zero tolerance policing would destroy public support

From the City Insights Lecture, given at the City University, by the Commissioner of Police for the City of London

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It is simply not realistic to prosecute every offence reported, or indeed is it desirable. Yet we are regularly encouraged by some opinion-formers to implement so-called "zero tolerance" policing. This stems from the belief and some fairly limited research, that if minor offences are robustly tackled and prosecuted, then individuals would be less inclined to commit other, possibly more serious offences.

It is simply not realistic to prosecute every offence reported, or indeed is it desirable. Yet we are regularly encouraged by some opinion-formers to implement so-called "zero tolerance" policing. This stems from the belief and some fairly limited research, that if minor offences are robustly tackled and prosecuted, then individuals would be less inclined to commit other, possibly more serious offences.

As I said a few moments ago, the fact that the law gives powers to police in various circumstances, does not in itself imply a duty to use them on every occasion and at all times. It seems to me that the first likely affect of an overall "zero tolerance" policy would be that normally law abiding people would be swept up in a wave of prosecutions for minor offences, the outcome of which I would predict would be a rapid falling away of confidence in the status of the law, followed by a corresponding lack of support for police, possibly when it was most needed.

The proliferation of minor prosecutions would be followed by the inability of police resources to keep up with operational demands, most probably when the next major incident arose and officers had to be re-directed to tackle more pressing issues. The deserved discredit that would undoubtedly follow, would jeopardise the credibility of police tactics in the future.

This may sound a little harsh on an idea that has much popular appeal in some quarters, but I would argue that long term public support, brought about by more thoughtful tactics, is preferable to the unsustainable, short-term reduction in headline statistics.

So, the ethical and tolerant officer who understands the concept "policing by consent" and who exercises discretion, is my preferred model officer.

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