Zero tolerance policing would lead to civil liberties violations, court jams and more people in prison, but there is little evidence it reduces crime, a Sydney criminologist has found during a study of the New York approach.
The enthusiasm of Australian politicians for looking to the United States reflects a slavish criminal justice cringe, the director of the Sydney University Institute of Criminology, Mr Chris Cuneen, has written in a new paper for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
"There is a profound irony in this given that the US has also among the highest levels of reported violent crime, and among the highest rates of imprisonment and legal execution of criminals," said Mr Cuneen, who spent four weeks late last year doing research in New York.
His paper is being released as the State Opposition Leader, Mrs Chikarovski, pledges a huge boost in police numbers and the Police Commissioner, Mr Peter Ryan, has indicated he favours zero tolerance policing.
The director of the FBI, Mr Louis Freeh, admitted the strategy had not been totally successful after he met the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, last week and Mr Cuneen has warned that in New York, it has driven drug crimes further underground.
Creative strategies for avoiding detection, such as bicycle delivery services ordered by phone, have grown as a street crackdown has driven drug dealing indoors.
"One result has been the development of more intimate relationships between buyers and sellers, which has also made the work of undercover police far more difficult," he said.
Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of police raids on private homes. From 1994 to 1997, there was a 50 per cent increase in the number of people who required reimbursement for damage caused as the result of wrongful police raids, he said.
According to 1996 FBI Crime Index figures, New York had the third lowest crime rate of the 25 biggest US cities, but per capita, it also had the second highest police staff levels.
"Some cities have both low crime rates and low per capita policing levels. Others have high crime rates and high police staffing levels," Mr Cuneen said.
Some have achieved significant reductions in crime without a zero tolerance policing strategy.
Mr Cuneen said there were many explanations for falls in crime rates, including lower unemployment levels and a decline in the use of crack cocaine. Pressures on police tempt them to fake statistics.
"The experience in the United States appears to be an upsurge in falsifying crime reports designed to demonstrate a reduction in the number of crimes being committed in particular areas," he wrote.
A focus on public order offences in Australia will undoubtedly increase the number of indigenous people in custody and, consequently, Aboriginal deaths in custody.
In New York, innocent people are caught up in policing operations, he said.
The Police Department is forced by the Civil Liberties Union to allow one exit when it seals off parks during operations. Previously, all citizens were trapped for the duration of the operation.
In a strategy called barricading, residents are forced to remain indoors while police do "sweeps" of entire neighbourhoods, often using helicopters.
Cyclists handcuffed and arrested for offences such as riding without a bell often remain in police custody for 24 hours before appearing in court.
Zero tolerance could actually increase the level of public disorder, Mr Cuneen said.