Abstract

The striking reduction in homicide in New York City between 1991 and 1997 has been claimed as a great success for a 'new policing tactic dubbed 'zero tolerance' - the aggressive enforcement of minor offences. The evidence that changes in policing made 'all the difference' is largely circumstantial, however, Homicide rates were at an all-time high in 1990-91 and had begun to decline before any radical changes in policing policy were instituted. The 1985-91 'murder spike' has been attributed largely to the simultaneous expanding crack cocaine 'epidemic' so the subsequent reduction in murder is related logically to the contraction of crack cocaine markets in the 1990s. There is some tentative support for the impact of policing on an already falling crime rate, but the changes in policing between 1991 and 1997 cannot adequately be described as 'zero tolerance'. The author argues that the 'New York story' has been over-simplified and over-sold, and that 'zero tolerance' is an inappropriate language for police policy or practice.

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