Zero tolerance for windows of opportunity


THERE IS not a lot I can contribute to the "zero tolerance" debate currently raging among the Garda, the political parties, the public, the media and a small group of leading mathematicians.

In fact I have decided to make no comment until the Garda finally acquires its long awaited two aircraft with night flying capability and the latest "thermal imaging" equipment. These purchases, I reminded you some time back, were approved the Government after a feasibility study costing £200,000. The aircraft when they arrive will cost rather more than that.

This equipment will allow the Garda to track criminals running, across a field at night. There will" then be zero tolerance for serious baddies who steal serious money from important concerns like banks and security firms.

It is a pity that the new hardware will not help in apprehending honest decent muggers with knives and syringes and claw hammers and screwdrivers and crowbars - petty criminals, so called, because they only bother petty people.

Nor will thermal imaging equipment pick out the illegal "bacco" sellers on Henry Street (front people for major criminals) who are very conscientious about keeping the mutually agreed 80 yards from the nearest police officer. Perhaps if the bacco sellers could be persuaded to operate after dark in rural areas the thermal imaging equipment could be used to identify and apprehend them.

I saw two officers on duty in Henry Street last Saturday morning standing the statutory 80 yards from a busy tobacco salesman. For all I know they may well have been discussing zero tolerance, but it was a cool morning and they looked less in need of thermal imaging than thermal underwear.

We might be better off looking at other American anti crime initiatives.

One experiment in the US involved a psychologist parking cars in different areas, removing number, plates and opening bonnets and waiting to see how long it was before the cars were cannibalised, vandalised and destroyed. He even used a sledgehammer on one car to advise local vandals that the vehicle was fair game. The conclusion was that the breakdown of order could occur anywhere.

But I am particularly interested in the "broken windows" theory of policing, as reported on in this paper last year by our drugs and crime correspondent, John Maher. This theory was written up by two American academics some 16 years ago in Allan he Monthly. The idea was that if a window in a building (no matter what the neighbourhood) is broken and left unrepaired, then all the windows will gradually be smashed. If it's quickly repaired, the likelihood is that other windows will be left intact.

Question: how many windows are broken in an average inner urban area while an academic is selecting a sledgehammer?

Difficult to know, I agree.

Applied to crime, as it subsequently was by the New York police, the "broken windows" theory resulted in a crackdown on petty crime in order to prevent more serious crime. Criminals, seeing quick action being taken on relatively minor offences, would think twice before committing more serious crimes.

I decided to test this myself. I went down to Lower Grand Canal Street the other day and found a newly broken window in an abandoned building. I measured it up, went to the glazier, then over to Lenehan's for putty, a knife, panel pins, a paintbrush and a small can of paint.

When I got back about an hour later another pane was broken. The theory seemed to be accurate so far.

I began working, but was slowed down when I cut my finger on a tiny glass sliver and had to carry on with blood seeping through a hastily applied handkerchief tourniquet.

A group of five children passed by. Another pane of glass disappeared suddenly, and loudly, just before the children disappeared suddenly, and quietly.

Two policemen now came round the corner, observed me for 20 minutes, then asked what I was doing. I began to explain the broken windows theory. One of the policeman then winked at the other and asked me to get down from my makeshift ladder of boxes and bricks.

Back at the station I was questioned for two hours. They were very interested in my theories, and I was let off with a compliment. {CORRECTION} 97030800009