Just Sociology

Understanding the Ideological Nature of Zero Tolerance Policing: Implications and Alternatives

Zero Tolerance Policing (ZTP) is a primary strategy aimed at maintaining social order and reducing overall crime rates. This approach involves cracking down on any criminal activity, no matter how minor or negligible it may seem, alongside providing on the spot fines as an instant form of justice.

While many consider ZTP a successful approach in reducing crime, it has also been a controversial policy, with critics contending that it has contributed to an increase in arrests, particularly for marijuana-related offences. This article will examine the nature, effectiveness, and theoretical perspectives of ZTP, as well as the downsides of its implementation, specifically marijuana-related arrests.

Definition and Examples

ZTP refers to a policing strategy focused on cracking down on minor criminal activities such as vandalism or public urination, which law enforcement officials argue are precursors to more serious crimes. Under this approach, law enforcement officers are empowered to pursue even the smallest infractions and pass out on the spot fines as a means of immediate punishment.

The United States experience of ZTP began in New York City in the 1990s under the leadership of Rudolf Giuliani. Giulianis administration claimed that the approach led to a significant decline in the city’s crime rates.

Since then, ZTP has been adopted in various parts of the world, including Liverpool, England, which launched Operation Safer Streets in 2014, cracking down on so-called anti-social behaviour using various tools, including Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).

Effectiveness of Zero Tolerance Policing

ZTP has proved effective in reducing crime rates in some areas. For instance, under Giuliani’s administration, New York City recorded a significant decline in crime, with the number of murders falling from 2245 in 1990 to 674 in 2013.

In Liverpool, Operation Safer Streets led to a 34% reduction in crime in the areas where the initiative was implemented. The use of ASBOs and fixed penalty notices aims to punish and deter individuals and act as a warning to others.

Theoretical Perspectives on Zero Tolerance Policing

ZTP is grounded on the Broken Windows Theory” which entails that visible signs of disorder, even minor ones, signal a lack of care and upkeep in the community. This attracts further disorder and more serious crimes.

The theory proposes that if the small crimes are addressed, the occurrence of major crimes would also decrease. Right realism is another theoretical perspective that supports ZTP.

Advocates of this theory believe that individuals are primarily responsible for their own behaviour, and that retribution and punishment should be harsh, direct, and immediate. It believes that criminal behaviour is a rational endeavour, and therefore making such efforts to deter criminal activity are necessary.

Strengths of Zero Tolerance Policing

One of the main strengths of ZTP is its immediate effect. The approach delivers swift, reassuring justice to the community, generating a sense of safety and justice.

This approach also allows the police to deal with problems promptly and prevent low-level incidents from escalating. Another attractive aspect of ZTP is its low cost, both in terms of finance and human resources, given that low-level offenders can be dealt with quickly, without requiring arrest or court appearances.

Downsides of Zero Tolerance Policing

While ZTP is a popular policy, it also has its downsides. Critics of this approach point out that it has a selective nature, and that it often targets specific groups, such as people of colour, who are disproportionately represented in low-level arrests.

In most cases, the target of ZTP is those who are often forced into petty crimes due to socio-economic conditions, lack of access to services and other problems. Another significant downside of this policy is that it can lead to the police giving priority to low-level criminal activity at the expense of ignoring serious crimes, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and gang violence.

Increase in Marijuana Arrests

In the United States, zero-tolerance policies on low-level crimes, including marijuana possession, have contributed to an increase in arrests. In 2017, for example, a total of 659,700 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, averaging one arrest every 48 seconds nationwide.

This stands in sharp contrast to the number of arrests in the 1990s, which was under 300,000 per year. This significant rise in marijuana arrests reveals the punitive approach that law enforcement agencies take under ZTP, with penalties including jail sentences and criminal convictions.

Consequences of Marijuana Arrests

One of the consequences of marijuana arrests is job loss. Those who have been arrested for marijuana possession may have a difficult time finding employment because they are labeled criminals.

The criminal label presents a significant obstacle in securing employment, especially where criminal background checks are a standard procedure for many employers. Housing loss is another consequence of marijuana arrests.

Those who have been arrested may face difficulty in securing housing given that landlords have the right to refuse to rent apartments or houses to individuals with criminal records. This situation can push people into poverty, homelessness or further into criminality.


ZTP is a policing strategy that focuses on zero tolerance for even minor crimes. While it has some benefits, it has also given rise to a range of negative consequences, such as the selective nature of arrests that often target people who are already marginalized.

Furthermore, in the case of marijuana-related arrests under ZTP, this policy appears to be flawed, causing more harm than good, such as denying people job and housing opportunities. As such, policymakers should consider alternative approaches that can achieve the necessary public safety goals while reducing unnecessary incarceration and harm.While Zero Tolerance Policing (ZTP) has gained popularity over the years as an effective crime-fighting approach, it is not the only factor that can lead to a reduction in crime rates.

This article builds on the previous discussion by exploring alternative causes of crime reduction, such as target hardening, increased time spent online, declining drug use, and abortion. Furthermore, this article delves into the racial implications of ZTP, highlighting its effects on minority groups, particularly black and Hispanic individuals.

Target Hardening

Target hardening refers to measures aimed at making a particular location, building or property more secure against criminal activity. Installing security cameras, door locks, and alarm systems are common examples of target hardening in action.

Target hardening has been known to decrease the likelihood of crime by making it harder for criminals to access their desired location or steal property with less risk of being caught. Thus, targeting crime hot-spots with increased resources for target hardening can prevent crime before it occurs.

Increased Time Spent Online

The increased time spent online is another factor that has contributed to a decline in crime rates. The ubiquity of modern technology, specifically smartphones, and laptops, has led to a significant shift in daily activities, with people spending more time indoors and online.

This shift has created a drastic reduction in the incidence of traditional street crimes, such as burglary or theft, because fewer people are out and about than ever before. Thus, the Internet, often considered a hotbed of criminal activity, paradoxically, has become a means of reducing actual crime.

Declining Use of Drugs

Drug use has been a major contributor to criminal activity, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods. When drug users are unable to finance their habit, it often leads to criminal behaviour such as theft or burglary to obtain funds.

A decrease in drug use, therefore, has been linked to a decline in crime rates. This connection also explains why ZTP policies that target drug-related offences can be effective in reducing crime rates.


Abortion may seem an unlikely contender on this list, but studies suggest that legalizing abortion has significantly contributed to a reduction in crime rates. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark decision of Roe v.

Wade. Since that time, scholars argue that there has been a correlation between the legalization of abortion and a decrease in crime rates.

This can be attributed to the fact that children born to mothers who want them have a better chance of having positive life outcomes, which in turn reduces their likelihood of being involved in criminal activity.

Demographics of Zero Tolerance Cases

ZTP policies have often been criticized for targeting minorities, particularly black and Hispanic individuals. Data shows that black and Hispanic individuals are disproportionately affected by ZTP policies.

In New York City, for example, black and Hispanic people comprise 85% of the city’s total population but were 88% of those stopped using ZTP tactics. Furthermore, data from the NYPD shows that almost 90% of those arrested for marijuana possession are black or Hispanic.

Implications of Zero Tolerance Policing for Minority Groups

The racial implications of ZTP are staggering, with critics contending that such policies have not reduced crime rates, but rather led to the criminalization and marginalization of minorities. ZTP policies have led to increased interaction between the police and minority groups, creating an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, and can create a sense of “over-policing” that is perceived as discriminatory.

In many cases, ZTP policies are focused on low-level crimes often committed by those who are forced into it by socio-economic conditions, making it especially ironic that these policies are often presented as measures to make neighbourhoods safer.


While ZTP has proven effective in reducing crime rates, policy-makers should be aware of the alternative factors that have contributed to crime reduction, such as increased time spent online, declining drug use, target hardening, and abortion. Moreover, policymakers must address the racial and discriminatory implications of ZTP policies, particularly in the context of zero-tolerance policing, which has affected black and Hispanic individuals disproportionately.

Policymakers must work towards creating policies that are inclusive, just, and equitable, which prioritizes the safety and well-being of all citizens.Zero Tolerance Policing (ZTP) has been a subject of debate for many years concerning its effectiveness and consequences. This article discusses the ideological nature of ZTP, specifically in regard to the focus on minor crimes and how it may benefit politicians.

Furthermore, it examines how such a policy may ignore more serious crimes, and some of the implications of ZTP’s ideological nature.

Ignoring Serious Crimes

Critics of ZTP argue that its primary focus on low-level crime means that serious crimes are often ignored. The selective nature of ZTP policies can and does benefit the elite politicians and powerful officials, who may be more concerned with their public image than with reducing crime rates, are more likely to benefit from low-level crime reduction initiatives as they are less likely to be personally affected by serious crimes.

Marxists contend that ZTP serves a significant ideological function which supports the interests of the ruling class. By focusing on petty crime and ignoring more serious crimes such as corporate crimes, the police and those in power have maintained the status quo, protecting the interests of the rich elites.

Politicians’ Benefit from Zero Tolerance Policing

The political environment plays a crucial role in shaping the implementation of ZTP. Some politicians may use the policy tactically to benefit themselves.

In other cases, they may benefit from ZTP policies disguised as responses to public safety threats. ZTP initiatives can bolster politicians’ public image, making them appear strong on crime, thereby helping them win elections.

However, this is based on the assumption that ZTP policies are viewed as effective, which isn’t necessarily the case.

Implications of Ideological Nature of Zero Tolerance Policing

The ideological nature of ZTP policies has far-reaching implications. For instance, it may create a distrust between the police and vulnerable or marginalised communities, leading to a breakdown of the sense of trust between law enforcement officials and citizens.

The focus on petty crime can lead to an over-secularised atmosphere that can further entrench existing inequalities. Furthermore, by treating low-level crime with such severity, ZTP intensifies the criminalization of already marginalized groups, and highlights the racism and discrepancies within the justice system.

Consequently, it can lead to a culture of oppression and marginalisation, to the detriment of vulnerable communities.


The focus on minor crimes and the ideological nature of ZTP have significant implications for society. ZTP policies that ignore serious crimes may benefit elites, including politicians and powerful officials, and the political environment, making politicians appear tough on crime, which is a significant consideration, particularly in an election year.

However, the policies’ ideological nature can have far-reaching implications, including creating distrust between police and marginalized groups, exacerbating existing inequalities, and leading to further injustices. Policymakers must take these issues into account when creating and implementing ZTP solutions that are both effective and equitable.


Zero Tolerance Policing has proven an effective approach in reducing crime rates, but it is not without its downsides – from the selective nature of arrests to the racial implications of its policies. Moreover, alternative causes of crime reduction, such as increased online activity, declining drug use, target hardening, and abortion, should be considered, and policymakers must address the ideological nature of ZTP to create equitable policies that prioritize the safety and well-being of all citizens.


1. What is Zero Tolerance Policing?

Zero Tolerance Policing refers to a law enforcement strategy focused on cracking down on minor criminal activities and dispensing on the spot fines as a means of immediate punishment. 2.

Has Zero Tolerance Policing been successful in reducing crime rates?

Yes, ZTP has been successful in reducing crime in some areas but is not effective in all contexts.

3. Has Zero Tolerance Policing contributed to the criminalization of minorities?

Yes, ZTP policies have been criticized for their selective nature, leading to the criminalization and marginalization of minorities, particularly black and Hispanic individuals.


Are there alternative factors that have contributed to crime reduction other than Zero Tolerance Policing?

Yes, factors such as increased online activity, declining drug use, target hardening, and abortion, have been associated with a decrease in crime rates.

5. What are some of the implications of ZTP’s ideological nature?

ZTP’s ideological nature can create a culture of oppression and marginalization, exacerbating existing inequalities and leading to a breakdown of trust between the police and marginalized communities.

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