Leading article: 'Zero tolerance' – a siren song that must not be heeded

It must be asked where the border between justice and retribution lies

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Police scepticism, not to say outright hostility, to David Cameron's plan to seek advice from the US "super cop", Bill Bratton, is understandable. However it is couched, the decision cannot but be interpreted as an expression of no confidence in the way the police, and the Met in particular, dealt with the rioting and looting of last week. But it is not the only move that should arouse serious misgivings about what happens when a government runs scared.

With a Downing Street e-petition demanding that those involved in the disturbances should suffer cuts in their benefits and housing provision, and a London council threatening to evict a tenant whose son admitted theft, the idea of punitive social, as well as judicial, sanctions is finding favour. And, with so many individuals currently being processed by the courts, the fast-track proceedings themselves should also prompt unease.

Take the courts first. The Metropolitan Police say that 2,000 people have been arrested and as many as 3,000 could come before the courts. Numbers in other cities run into hundreds. With courts sitting through the nights and weekends, is due process always being rigorously observed? And if it is, how consistent is the treatment of the accused?

Initial figures from the Ministry of Justice show that two-thirds of those who have appeared in court so far have been remanded in custody; this compares with just 10 per cent for similar offences through 2010. Some of the sentences – six months in prison for stealing bottled water – also seem draconian. It must be asked where the border between justice and retribution lies, and whether a political message is not also being sent.

Politics seems to be implicated in Wandsworth Council's application to evict a tenant whose (18-year-old) son was involved in the rioting. But is it ethical, even if it is legal, for a council to punish the tenant, in this case the mother, for the actions of another, adult, member of the household? And is it practical, given that the same council might then have to house another homeless family? Similarly with benefits: is it fair if judicial punishment is supplemented by benefits sanctions, or do these belong in separate compartments? And is it not an incentive to a young rioter, say, to turn thief again, this time to survive? Not even US "zero tolerance" policing goes that far.

The lure of US-style "zero tolerance" for frightened British politicians is that statistics suggest it can work. But the police are right to be wary. There are vast cultural and social differences between there and here, not least the fact that US police are armed. To give him his due, Mr Bratton says his advice will be limited to dealing with inner-city gangs. But the most useful lesson Britain might learn could be the "broken window" strategy: the notion that one apparently trivial violation that goes unpunished only encourages another.

In fact, this would be akin to a rediscovery of traditional policing. And if it means that what is currently designated "anti-social behaviour" is redefined as crime – and so a police responsibility – this could help to rebuild public confidence. But should it really take a super cop to say this? In matters of policing – as justice – panic and haste all too often prove counterproductive, with the risks and the losses far outweighing any gains.

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