Mary Dejevsky: Zero tolerance has cleaned up New York, but it won't work here

'Can you imagine the resentment if law-abiding citizens were body-searched in Oxford Street?'
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The Independent Online

The chattering classes are all chattering about it. The Opposition is lambasting the Government for it, and Downing Street is rattled enough to hold a summit on it. Street crime, set to rise by 25 per cent this year across England and Wales and by much more in London, is the worry of the moment. Tony Blair, who came to office promising to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" is finding that not a lot of kudos accrue from toughening up on the causes, if the incidence of ordinary, visible, crime – such as bag-snatching, phone-grabbing, car-jacking, house-breaking and the like – continues to rise.

At such times, the automatic response is to look across the Atlantic, where – received wisdom has it – the problems arise earlier and solutions are identified and applied more effectively than they ever would be here. And when crime is concerned, where better to start than New York, where the incidence of violent crime has fallen 65 per cent since 1993 and crime overall now stands at a level comparable with the Sixties?

As any recent visitor will attest, the streets of New York City now feel not only livelier, but safer than they did 10 years ago. They are cleaner and neater, too. The exodus to the suburbs has been reversed, and people are moving back into town. New York – along with other big American cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago – is once again becoming somewhere not only to work, but to live.

The cause of this transformation, it is said, is the policy known as zero tolerance, under which police are concentrated in areas where continual monitoring shows crime to be highest and the smallest infringement of the law is punished. The crackdown encompasses everything from spray-painting graffiti, through begging, smoking cannabis, driving without wearing a seatbelt and fare-dodging to jaywalking. The theory is that crime starts small, and that one thing leads to another. Today's fare-dodger is tomorrow's bag-snatcher and next year's house-breaker. People break the law to the extent that they can get away with it. If you can demonstrate that offenders cannot get away with it, the incidence of crime will fall.

The latest convert to the New York school of zero tolerance is the shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, who has returned full of the 80 per cent fall in the murder rate, the superior condition of the streets and the higher morale of the police. Mr Letwin, though, is far from alone. Politicians across the spectrum have hailed zero tolerance as the most promising remedy for Britain's crime problems. So much so that when the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, widely seen as the embodiment of zero-tolerance policing, came to London recently, he was lionised less for his heroics in the aftermath of 11 September – the reason for his trip – than as a one-man solution to the capital's street crime.

A cold, hard look at New-York-style zero tolerance, however, suggests that it should be introduced here with the greatest of caution, if at all. The theory is seductive, but – as so often with attempts to apply American solutions to British problems – the practice only shows how different our two countries are.

Zero tolerance could be applied in New York because there was a political mandate for it. Mayor of New York is an elected office and one with real power, which includes authority over the police force. Mr Giuliani ran for office with a mission to "clean up" New York and make the city "liveable" again. He won his mandate. He could appoint a new police chief, order zero tolerance and divert tax revenue to that end.

Here, the mayor of London has no such authority. The Home Secretary may set targets and may even, as Mr Blunkett recently did, threaten intervention if street crime is not cut, but the single-mindedness that comes from the voters' mandate, and the money that follows it, does not exist. The US system, which includes the election of judges, comes very close to politicising the whole system of law and order. That may suit America and make for consistency, but would it be acceptable here?

Nor is the evidence that zero tolerance works conclusive. Certainly, murder and violent crime in many US cities are down, but in many others – including Washington DC – the fall has been temporary. Demographic factors, such as lower numbers of young men – the most crime-prone section of the population – along with the reform of the welfare system and the economic boom of the Nineties which put more people in work may also have helped to stem crime.

New York is similar to most big US conurbations in that crime is concentrated in poor, minority areas. It was when street crime started to spill out of Harlem into the plush areas of Manhattan that the clamour for zero tolerance began. Something similar can be observed in London, but it is the proliferation of muggings and car-jackings in recently gentrified areas – where the articulate middle-class voters live – that has largely precipitated calls for zero tolerance here.

Americans and Britons are very different in the degree of conformity they will accept. Under zero tolerance, the New York police massively extended stop and search, including body searches. The incidence of imprisonment and police violence towards suspects rose exponentially, embroiling the police in multiple lawsuits and claims for compensation (many of them expensively settled). US police are armed. In two notorious cases, that of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, New York cops shot first and asked questions afterwards. Both men were found to be unarmed victims of aggressive policing.

Even if such tactics applied in crime hotspots of Britain's cities did not trigger racial unrest, they would quickly cause a political outcry. And you can imagine the resentment, civil disobedience and even disorder that would result if otherwise law-abiding citizens were stopped and body-searched (on Oxford Street?) or piled into a police van for smoking cannabis (in Notting Hill?). Such impositions were tolerated in New York and in other US cities as the price of less crime. I doubt they would be in Britain.

Zero tolerance is exactly what it says it is. Not only would it not work in Britain, but it would betray much of what we stand for as a country and is so envied elsewhere: tolerance.