What Bill Bratton really thinks about "zero tolerance"

Cameron's new "supercop" adviser doesn't agree with him on "zero tolerance" policing.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

David Cameron has used recent interviews to call for a "zero tolerance" approach to crime. He told the Sunday Telegraph: "We haven't talked the language of zero tolerance enough, but the message is getting through."

But it's worth noting that Bill Bratton, the former New York and Los Angeles police commissioner, whose theories Cameron assumed he was citing, takes a different view. In November 2010, during an appearance before the home affairs select committee, Bratton remarked:

First, I would not advocate attempting zero tolerance anywhere in any city, in any country in the world. It's not achievable. Zero tolerance, which is often times attributed to me and my time in New York City, is not something we practised, engaged in, supported or endorsed, other than zero tolerance of police corruption. Zero tolerance implies that you in fact can eliminate a problem, and that's not reality. You're not going to totally eliminate crime and even social disorder. You can reduce it significantly.

So I would stay away from use of the term. It sounds great. Politically it's a great catchphrase. The term originated here in England when Jack Straw, as Shadow Home Secretary, visited me in New York in 1995, and by that time the impressive change in New York City had begun to occur. He heard the term "zero tolerance" when we were speaking about police corruption but then applied it across the eight strategies that we were engaging in in New York, including "broken windows", drugs, gangs, crime, stolen cars and police corruption. So it was a term misappropriated and misapplied. You seem to love it over here, because I have the hardest time convincing you to stay away from it.

Bratton makes an important distinction between the "broken windows" theory - the belief that petty crime (such as breaking windows), if left unaddressed, leads to more serious crime (such as burglary) - and "zero tolerance".

Cameron's new adviser, it seems, might not give him the advice that he's looking for.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

Free trial CSS