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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Zero Tolerance in Britain: Right Time for an American Solution?

Zero Tolerance in Britain: Right Time for an American Solution?

People Want Action Before Another Clean-Up - Alastair

As the British public demand action after the August Riots, is a one-size-fits-all idea from the USA the answer, or will it stoke future flames?

Indelible spray-dyeing, water cannon, closing social networks are hotly debated in the wake of England’s costly August 2011 riots, that led to almost 3000 arrests. Zero tolerance is now added to the arsenal of ideas.

Free Dictionary defines Zero Tolerance as the policy of applying ‘laws or penalties to minor code infringements in order to reinforce its overall importance and enhance deterrence’. Starting in 1980s’ USA as the ‘War on Drugs’, it was action against drugs and weapons.

Most US school districts employ zero tolerance extending to hate-speech, harassment, fighting, bullying and dress codes, supporters arguing it promotes safety/well-being of children and young people and sends a powerful message. Opponents point out that it’s inflexible, and common sense cannot be applied, so minor infractions have to be dealt with which are time consuming and encourage rebellion.

Federal aid is tied to adoption of zero policies which also include ‘three strikes and you’re out’ as a tagline. Schools not enforcing them risk civil lawsuits from victims of violence. It has been broached in small ways in the UK, but is now high on the agenda.

The Supercop Approach

Amidst blame, recriminations and finger-pointing in the aftermath of riots and looting, the causes take a lot of time and thought; people accept that. The biggest imperatives are quelling future unrest and strategies to prevent it recurring. Most people feel forces of law and order need strengthening.

Prime Minister David Cameron clashed with police in saying their tactics were misguided at the start of the riots in treating them as public order rather than criminality. With years of police seeing themselves, and being legislated to be, instruments of social engineering rather than a ‘force’, it was hardly surprising.

Cameron said he wanted US-style crime strategies (code for ‘zero tolerance’) on Britain’s streets. He invited former New York police chief who also dealt with 1992 Los Angeles riots, Bill Bratton, to share his crime-fighting methods. The broken windows approach or repairing vandalised property quickly, has already been taken to heart by thousands of people cleaning up their own streets after the destruction.

Some commentators observed that the sweeping broom is a more potent symbol than truncheons.

Ian Hanson, from Greater Manchester Police Federation called bringing in ‘Supercop’ Bratton ‘a slap in the face’ for British police. Sir Hugh Orde, Association of Chief Police Officers President, spoke against the move, claiming Britain ‘had no lessons to learn from gang-ridden America’.

Home Secretary Theresa May said she wanted ‘to listen to Mr Bratton’s experience’ among other advice from around Britain and the world. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outlined a hardline crackdown on criminal gangs, promising to make their lives ‘hell’ with police activity against them.

He suggested young people hanging out with gangs on streets late at night could be rounded up and taken to police stations for parents to collect. This reflects widespread public horror at the number of children involved in crime and rioting.

Too Draconian? Too Timid?

Civil liberties campaigners have expressed concerns about police harassment of known criminals, rounding up youngsters and pursuing minor offences relentlessly through courts. Widespread criminalising in Britain has not been popular, and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) have backfired when seen as badges of honour by some youngsters.

Duncan Smith suggested a need to lure people away from gang activity; in effect, a massive cultural change. Education at academy-type schools where discipline, drug treatment and academic help have high priorities, opened the debate about how wide zero tolerance can and should go in Britain.

In the past decade, schools have adopted intolerance to race-hate offences, bullying, weapon carrying, drug activities and some dress codes. If the suppression is paralleled in the world outside school gates, then it has more effect within. In Scotland, for example, a charity, Zero Tolerance seeks to change the causes of men’s violence against women.

They say too often women experience violence from ‘men they are close to and/or who are in a position of power over them’. They believe it’s caused by gender inequality, and violence against women perpetuates the inequality. So already, the term and variations of its concepts are circulating in Britain.

The Other Perspective is one of many websites warning that the west is slipping into police-run states in the name of combatting terrorism. Kelly Patricia O’Meara wrote an analysis of 2001’s Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (or USA PATRIOT Act).

People demanded action after the September 11 terrorist atrocities in the US, but she said that ‘critics both left and right are saying it not only strips Americans of fundamental rights but does little or nothing to secure the nation from terrorist attack’. Ron Paul (Texas) was one of only three Republicans to vote against and was outraged by how opponents were stigmatised. He knew it undermined the Constitution, but was made to feel unpatriotic.

Paul’s main objection was how federal government can commit surveillance on all without proper warrants. The protection of the 4th Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures was gone. Searches without warning, without explanation were legalised. It applied to any criminal activity, not simply terrorism.

Already in Britain, investigators can get information from internet use and phones without warrants and anti-terrorist legislation is used in minor crimes, tax collection and public service provisions. Gathering intelligence covers a huge range of police (and related authorities’) activities. Should the August 2011 failure of intelligence justify further loss of individual liberty to give authorities more powers?

Meanwhile, In Britain anger, sense of betrayal and failure, impotence and hopelessness, belonging to/excluded from communities are felt in different but strong ways by many: people from every race and background, rioters, looters, youngsters, unemployed, unskilled, morally-bankrupt, victims, families, public service workers and law-abiding residents.

So, is zero tolerance worth a try, even if it costs some liberty?

First published on Suite 101, 15 August 2011. One year on from the riots that provoked the article, republished on this site to be part of my archive.

Image: People Want Action Before Another Clean-Up – Alastair

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