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Letter: Zero Tolerance Isn’t the Answer (Rochester City Newspaper)

To the editor:

At the end of 2008 Rochester Police Chief David Moore attributed the 12 percent drop in murders in the city from 2007 to 2008 to the strong enforcement of the “Zero Tolerance” program. The statistic represented a difference of six murders: 50 to 44.

Chief Moore’s claims of success unraveled in early January, when six people were murdered over a seven-day stretch. The murders horrified residents and raised serious questions about Zero Tolerance’s effectiveness.

If these murders had occurred a week earlier, the entire 2008 improvement cited as a consequence of Zero Tolerance would have been wiped out. Who knows what the final 2009 level will be, given this tragic beginning to the new year? These facts beg the question of what exactly the benefits of Zero Tolerance are and how these benefits can be effectively measured. The honest answer to this question is that the benefits can’t be measured.

While the program hasn’t lowered the murder rate, it has strained the city’s budget. In an August Democrat and Chronicle article, Gary Craig estimated that the program costs taxpayers up to $4 million per year. The program caused a record level of police overtime payments in 2008. The numbers are astonishing. At least 135 Rochester police officers were paid more than $100,000 last year – with one officer earning $147,752. We don’t begrudge police fair pay, but many of these officers’ total compensation was more than double their base pay – a result primarily attributed to increased overtime.

Zero Tolerance isn’t simply expensive. The program exacts an enormous toll on low-income communities of color who repeatedly endure unjustified stops, searches, and arrests as a result of confrontational police tactics. Michael Lopez of the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office says that the number of groundless stop, frisk, and search encounters has jumped significantly since Zero Tolerance began. Lopez should know; police have stopped him without cause a number of times. In each instance, they let him go after learning that he is a public defense attorney. Some of his clients have not been so lucky. Policing strategies that alienate the community and violate individual rights breed antagonism, hostility, and mistrust between communities and law enforcement, which makes nobody safer.

Other cities have reduced serious crime without resorting to aggressive police tactics. Milwaukee cut its murder rate by two-thirds last year – a difference of 34 homicides. It did so by emphasizing community-police relations, increased foot patrols, and more effectively allocating police resources.

Chief Moore should reconsider Zero Tolerance. Programs for troubled youth and those who have lost their way must be explored. This will not happen overnight but will take time and a new way of thinking. The continuing cycle of children shooting children must be stopped. And Zero Tolerance is the wrong tool for the job.

We need affordable, effective crime-fighting strategies that respect the dignity and rights of all members of our community. We need residents and police officers working together to address Rochester’s tragic crime problem. Zero Tolerance cannot provide that unity of purpose.

Laurence W. Britt
Board Member, Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union

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