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Newman On-Line: 'Broken Windows'

Newman On-Line: 'Broken Windows' zero tolerance to crime in action.

At our ACT Conference tomorrow, the architect of ‘zero tolerance’ policing in Britain, former Police Chief Ray Mallon, will be presenting a keynote address. Ray, now the Mayor of Middlesbrough, will be joining us live via satellite link.

I had the privilege of visiting Mayor Ray a couple of years ago and was extremely impressed by his energy, enthusiasm and focussed determination to significantly reduce crime in his city. He has long believed that through ‘confident policing’, peace can be returned to towns and cities throughout Britain, enabling decent, law-abiding citizens to once again become the rightful owners of their streets - rather than yobbos, criminals and other anti-social delinquents.

Britain, like most western countries - including New Zealand – has experienced an escalation in crime. While crime rates had historically been low, after the 1970s they began to rise across the board. By the early nineties they had skyrocketed, and innovative policing strategies began to be advanced.

In particular, William Bratton, the Police Commissioner in New York, and Ray Mallon, the District Chief Inspector of Police in Hartpool, in the North East of England - on other sides of the world from each other - both developed similar approaches to fighting crime that delivered unprecedented reductions in offending. Known as “zero tolerance” policing, their strategies focussed on cracking down on petty crime as the precursor to more serious crime.

Based on the 'Broken Windows' theory of crime, first developed in 1983 by American academics George Kelling and James Wilson, zero tolerance policing recognised the strong link between disorder and crime. In areas where there are visible signs of decay, such as litter, broken windows, graffiti, and abandoned housing, crime is able to flourish. Then, as neighbourhoods become increasingly disorderly, fear of crime rises, forcing 'respectable' members of the community to leave.

Since preventing the slide into crime was seen to be a far easier option that trying to turn around declining neighbourhoods, effective policing focussed on pursuing even the most minor misdemeanours with the same vigour as more serious crimes, in order to create a deterrent effect. Glue sniffing under a bridge, urinating in an alleyway, smashing streetlights, or abusing passers by, were all regarded as potentially the first step to more serious crime.

As Ray Mallon explained: “Boys and young men don’t go straight from being cheeky to their parents into burglary – any more than children go straight from primary school into the university”.

Traditional methods of policing had always centred on the notion that the best way to keep crime down was to intervene early and confidently. That meant letting the teenager know that he had been spotted by the police throwing bottles at the passing car, informing his parent that he had been in the group that abused the pensioner, and getting him to not only apologise to the property owners for his graffiti, but to clean it up as well.

But zero tolerance policing didn’t only just focus on minor offending and sub-criminal disorder, it also targeted crimes such as house burglary that were major contributors to the ‘fear of crime’ in any town.

In any community, the majority of crimes are committed by a small number of serial offenders, like the professional burglar who may break into four or five houses in a day, and commit tens of thousands of offences every year. If these hard-core criminals are targeted, then crime drops. Similarly, if the career criminal thinks there is a good chance that he will be caught and that the sentence will be tough, then he is far less likely to commit the crime in the first place.

During his first year as Mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray used his experience of zero tolerance policing to focus on reducing crime and anti-social behaviour. By working in partnership with the Police and other local agencies, his goal of cutting crime by 15 percent a year, was exceeded.

His vision for the future of his city – his “Raising Hope” project - is based on the concept that providing a clean, safe environment, in which people can go about their business without fear of crime and anti-social behaviour, is one of the key pre-requisites of community success. To achieve his vision he has initiated the physical regeneration of the city’s run-down areas, the development of a transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of his community, and he has focussed on creating a business-friendly enterprise culture, which welcomes would-be investors.

In the politically correct environment in which we now live, I suspect Ray Mallon’s no-nonsense approach and common-sense ideas will come across like a breath of fresh air!

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