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Urban Police - Minor Offenses And Incivilities

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In the 1990s, citizens, politicians, and police administrators began to focus their attention on minor offenses and quality-of-life issues. In a seminal article, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling proposed the broken windows thesis. They argued that a broken window symbolizes a lack of care about a property, making it ripe for criminal activity. Wilson and Kelling stressed the importance of controlling minor crimes and disorders in an effort to curb more serious crime. They argue that making citizens feel safer and improving their quality of life should be the goal of police. Research has documented the spiraling decline of neighborhoods, where fearful citizens retreat into their homes, community ties break down, disorder increases, and more serious forms of crime develop (Skogan). In many departments across the country, minor disorders and incivilities have become the focus of aggressive law enforcement tactics.

Often referred to as zero-tolerance policies, departments are using tactics of aggressive enforcement of minor crimes to clean up the streets and make citizens feel safer. There are two distinct but related concepts underlying zero-tolerance policies. First, these policies send a clear message to citizens that illegal conduct will not be tolerated. Second, proponents argue that by focusing on minor crimes, more serious crimes will decrease. For example, people arrested for minor crimes might be carrying an illegal weapon or be wanted on arrest warrants for other crimes. The highest profile example of the use of this policing strategy is in New York City's police department. The NYPD adopted the zero-tolerance policy in 1993 after abandoning CPOP (Community Patrol Officer Program), a community policing strategy. Officers began making arrests and issuing citations for such minor crimes as fare beating (jumping the turnstiles in subways), urinating in public, jaywalking, and loitering. In addition, police and media attention focused on "squeegee" people (people who clean car windows at intersections for money).

Kelling and Coles argue that tougher enforcement of these minor crimes contributed to a higher quality of life for residents and visitors in New York, along with a lower crime rate for more serious crimes. The crime rate in New York dropped significantly during the 1990s. The murder rate in 1997 was the lowest it had been in thirty years. Similar trends in the lowering of the crime rate, however, are being experienced by other cities not using zero-tolerance policies. Therefore, it is unclear whether zero-tolerance policies are the actual stimulus behind the decline in crime rates.

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