Zero sense

Zero tolerance is a pretty stupid policing strategy, closely associated with the American right-wing, so it’s had to understand how it is that the Home Secretary, Jaqui Smith, has decided it’s a good choice for the UK:

Jacqui Smith today announced a “zero-tolerance” crackdown on anti-social behaviour, burglary and drug and alcohol misuse. The home secretary’s tough message to delegates on the final day of the Labour party conference in Bournemouth was designed to outflank the Tories’ renewed push on law and order.

This is quite a confusing collection of activities to lump together under a “zero tolerance” banner. It mixes together a range of things from serious crimes to legal personal choices. A helpless drunk might be annoying, even frightening, but locking him/her up is not going to stop you getting your home burgled.

The Home Secretary is obviously being advised by people with a limited knowledge of criminology but a good ear for a soundbite. And a sharp eye for the opinions of the Daily Mail readership.

The introduction of local crime data is designed to address the fact that, despite a 35% fall in the national crime figures since Labour came to power, most people believe that crime has gone up. Ministers hope the provision of local crime data will make clear the real situation and reduce fear of crime.

Correct me if I am misunderstanding here, but doesn’t this suggest that current laws and policies are associated with a reduction in crime? However, the media – what other source could people have for their beliefs about the prevalence of crime, given its comparative rarity? – are giving people a false perception that crime is increasing.

Hence, government policies have to change to match the false perception rather than the reality and must provide whatever the media are demanding.

Does this mean that a grateful media will then report crime as falling, even if it rises?

Clearly not. That voracious part of the media that thrives upon keeping the British public in a state of constant fear will not be sated so easily. It will continue to oppose any (especially a Labour) government on its crime record, because that’s just what a large part of the media does.

Sadly, in the course of Jaqui’s finding out this simple fact -which should be obvious to anyone with the slimmest grounding in GSCE social science or media studies, let alone with an Oxford degree – ever more people will find themselves labelled as criminal and ever greater numbers of poor communities will be alienated by heavy-handed policing.

And just in case you thought our society had more than enough electronic surveillance and biometric data on record, the police are now to be issued with hand-held computers and portable weapons-detecting and fingerprint-taking devices……