December 31, 2014

The myth of zero tolerance policing

Robert Wilbur & Martha Rosenberg, Counterpunch - Crime did decline under Giuliani and Bratton in the 1990s but was there really a cause-and-effect relationship between the decrement and “zero-tolerance” policing? To get some answers we spoke with David Harris, Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, who has studied zero-tolerance policing in depth and is considered an expert.

Surprisingly, Professor Harris told us the progressive decline in violent crime, which continues to this day, is an inexplicable nationwide trend that is seen equally in cities that practice zero-tolerance and those that do not. Professor Harris deemed zero-tolerance policing “harsh” and “unyielding” and devoid of any deterrent effect. Indeed, Professor Harris finds it counterproductive because it breeds fear and hatred of the police, crowds jails, and deflects police manpower from pursuing serious crime. Professor Harris describes the apparent success of zero-tolerance as an artifact of the nationwide decline in all crimes. Zero-tolerance takes on a life of its own and leads to episodes like the Garner homicide or the ignominious epidemic of “stop and frisk” encounters, Professor Harris told us....

We also spoke with Chauniqua Young, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights... Chauniqua Young has harsh words for zero-tolerance and stop and frisk laws in which volumes of people, often people of color, are targeted and says it is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. She believes that police are not properly disciplined to use their authority with restraint and she emphasized the indignity and racist nature of such police actions, an issue highlighted by August’s unrest in Ferguson, MO. Like Professor Harris, Young believes that zero-tolerance policing alienates innocent people from the police.

Next we spoke with Terry Kupers, a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of the Wright Institute in Berkeley who has spoken out against prison abuses including solitary confinement. “Being busted [by law enforcement officers] can be a severe trauma with long-lasting consequences,” Dr. Kupers told us. In addition to racial inequalities, zero-tolerance puts homeless people and people suffering from a mental illness in jeopardy of trauma when they are arrested and/or incarcerated, he said.

While an arrest is a negative reinforcement which is capable of changing behavior, most psychologists regard positive reinforcement [reward] as a better way to change behavior than punishment. And, says Dr. Kupers, the negative reinforcement of arrest and incarceration is dwarfed by the harmful social effect of putting more people in jail or prisons. On an individual basis, deleterious conditions in prison and jail such as crowding, lack of medical and mental health care and solitary detention simply increase the likelihood of offenders using drugs, committing more crimes and being re-arrested when they are released, warns Dr. Kupers.

Still, zero-tolerance measures are in wide use. In New York City alone, an astonishing 700,000 people were stopped and frisked in 2011.

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