Miami Gardens and the insanity of ‘zero tolerance’

In all the commotion about a Miami-area police force’s allegedly mindless harassment of workers and patrons of a convenience store, one aspect that may have been overlooked is how the cops’ behavior was fostered by a “zero tolerance” program. 

You may have heard about this case: as documented by the Miami Herald, the police in this suburb of Miami stopped and questioned one denizen of the convenience store 258 times in four years. He was arrested and jailed 56 times, typically for trespassing. The punch line: He’s a clerk at the store. Things got so bad that the store’s owner installed a video camera for protection--from the police. 

Zero tolerance policies don’t always translate into a blank check for police to harass anyone they choose. But it does remove human judgment from the enforcement of laws, regulation and ordinary behavior. They’re not an answer to lawlessness--they’re an excuse for police departments, judges, school administrators and society at large to abdicate their responsibilities.

California has been living with the consequences of zero tolerance for years--it’s our so-called three-strikes law, which filled up our prisons with people accused of minor infractions, because we didn’t want our judges to exercise discretion. Californians finally got fed up with the law last year and significantly liberalized it by passing Proposition 36. The law, passed in 1994 in response to a pair of horrific child murders, mandated a life sentence for even a minor crime if the defendant had two prior convictions for two serious or violent felonies. The selling point was that it would keep “murderers, rapists, and child molesters behind bars": the reality was that more than half the inmates jailed under the law were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Great for the prison construction industry, not so great for society.


The problem with zero tolerance goes much further than that. Human behavior is infinitely variable, even within broad categories like wrongdoing. Remove the ability of judges, officers or administrators on the ground to impose their judgment of the circumstances, and you end up with absurd results such as a sixth-grader expelled for bringing a squirt gun to school, the suspension of a seventh-grader from bringing a homemade rocket to science class (it was judged a “weapon”), a high school sophomore suspended for loaning a pair of nail clippers to a friend. It’s especially tragic for these episodes to occur in schools, where students should be taught the virtues of good judgment, not the dangers of robotic enforcement.

By most accounts, zero tolerance originated in the campaigns against street crime and drug abuse in the 1970s. It’s closely related to the “broken windows” theory of criminologist James Q. Wilson, which holds that even minor community disorders--street vandalism, for example--encourages further breakdown in the social fabric. As Justin Peters recently observed on, the evidence that “broken windows” enforcement works is equivocal--its offspring, the “stop and frisk” policy of the New York City police under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, may have caused more community dissension than it has alleviated crime, and incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio seems certain to end it.

Evidence that zero tolerance works may be even harder to come by. That may be because rather than impose consistent punishment for misbehavior, it leads to arbitrary outcomes--is bringing a squirt gun to school really the same as bringing a loaded firearm? 

The Miami Gardens fiasco points to another drawback. Zero tolerance eliminates any accountability by the police; faced with complaints of harassment or overzealous enforcement, they can simply point to the zero-tolerance policy and claim they have no choice.


With the exposure of the Miami Gardens police and the partial rollback of California’s three-strikes law, it’s possible the tide is turning on zero tolerance. But that’s not the way to bet. These policies are always inspired by the public’s fears of crime and disorder, which never ebb even as evidence for unrestrained prevalence of violent crime fades. And the search for quick, easy and cheap solutions to law enforcement also endures. Just because zero tolerance contributes to capricious and ineffective law enforcement rather than reducing it doesn’t mean people will take notice.