U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Zero Tolerance in New York City: Hard Questions for a Get-Tough Policy (From Hard Cop, Soft Cop: Dilemmas and Debates in Contemporary Policing, P 23-39, 2004, Roger Hopkins Burke, ed. -- See NCJ-206005)

NCJ Number
Andrew Karmen
Date Published
17 pages
By posing and discussing answers to five questions, this chapter examines the effectiveness of "zero tolerance" policing, the policing strategy adopted by Mayor Giuliani's administration in New York City and replicated in other cities that involves the strict enforcement of ordinances against minor transgressions and gun-carrying in the belief that this will deter the commission of more serious crimes.
The first question pertains to whether the zero tolerance campaign in New York City was the primary cause of the dramatic reduction in violence and theft rates in the city. The chapter notes that to date, unambiguous statistical evidence of a relationship between increasing arrests for minor infractions and declining rates of serious offenses has not been demonstrated in analyses by criminologists of data from New York City, other major cities, and the Nation as a whole. The second question focuses on whether the huge volume of arrests absorbs scarce resources and distorts the spending priorities of municipal administrations. The chapter concludes that zero tolerance campaigns are very expensive in terms of personnel investment, court processing, and short-term jail stays. This raises the issue as to whether the time and money spent on enforcing minor ordinances that target deeply troubled chronic petty offenders might be better invested in prevention activities and rehabilitation services. The third question involves whether the arrest campaign damages the education, housing, and employment prospects of a large number of New York City residents. The author notes that the zero tolerance strategy may be counterproductive over the long term if it drives already marginalized people even deeper into lives of desperation and deviance, thus perpetuating and even intensifying a "dangerous class" within New York City. The fourth question considers whether the stepped-up use of stop-and-frisk tactics effectively deter gun-carrying. Research on this issue has concluded that it is far from clear that the surge in stops-and-frisks has had a decisive incapacitative and deterrent effect. The fifth question asks whether the zero tolerance policies in New York City have undermined good police-community relations. As the 1990's drew to a close, New York City police officers complained that the drive to punish minor infractions had undercut their exercise of discretion and made them feel unpopular, even despised in the neighborhoods they aggressively patrolled. As a consequence, morale deteriorated among officers, many veterans retired early or quit, and recruitment declined. 13 notes