Printer Friendly

Zero tolerance in a small town.

The Kennett square, Pennsylvania, Police Department and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) have one thing in common - both are law enforcement agencies. Beyond that, similarities can be hard to find. With a police force of over 38,000 sworn personnel, New York City has more than six times as many police officers as Kennett square has citizens. Yet, in recent years, this small community of 5,600, located 25 miles southwest of Philadelphia, has suffered many of the plagues normally associated with big cities - including increased assaults, heightened levels of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, prostitution, and a flourishing open-air drug market operating around the clock.

The combined affects of these and other factors fueled an appreciable decline in the quality of life in Kennett square. Throughout the early 1990s, Part I crime-per-capita figures increased.(1) In 1993, the once-placid community experienced four homicides. In 1994, Philadelphia Magazine ranked the borough as one of the 10 least safe communities in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.(2)

The growing crime problem did not reflect a lack of resourcefulness on the part of the police department. High clearance rates for Part I and Part II crimes - 50 percent and 65 percent, respectively - demonstrated the effectiveness of the 12-member police force.(3) Periodic drug sweeps conducted with the assistance of the state police yielded numerous convictions and helped to dismantle organized trafficking rings. Residents of Kennett square consistently expressed confidence and satisfaction with their police department. But, the overall quality of life continued to decline. The question remained: What could be done to reverse this trend?

Big City Model

Ironically, the answer was being formulated 100 miles away in a metropolis long regarded as an ongoing experiment in civic dysfunction. By the mid-1990s, though, New York City had begun to post dramatic reductions in crime. Between 1993 and 1996, the rate of serious crime in the city dropped nearly 40 percent, while the crime rate nationally declined a modest 2 percent.(4) The city has recorded significant reductions in a broad range of crimes: The number of murders fell from 2,245 in 1990 to less than 1,000 in 1996, while auto theft rates declined over 50 percent from 1990 figures. The number of rapes, assaults, and robberies also has declined significantly.(5)

The reduced crime rates can be traced in large part to a shift in focus adopted by the NYPD in 1994. Applying many of the principles outlined in the Broken Windows theory developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling over a decade earlier,(6) the NYPD implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward criminal activity - including seemingly petty offenses that rarely warranted police intervention before. As the police began to make arrests for such quality-of-life offenses as public drunkenness, graffiti-painting, aggressive panhandling, and disorderly conduct, outward signs of social control began to return to the city's public areas. Law-abiding citizens became emboldened to reclaim areas and practices that long ago had been abandoned. As they did, they further reestablished basic codes of civil conduct throughout the city. Soon, public areas, such as Bryant Park, which essentially had been surrendered to criminals and miscreants, flourished as the public reclaimed and the city rejuvenated them.

Equally as dramatic as the public revitalization that followed the shift in police focus and practices was the impact of the zero tolerance policy on serious crime. Murders, assaults, rapes, and other serious crimes plunged in the wake of the police crackdown on comparatively minor offenses. While other factors - such as the maturing of the drug trade (most of the turf wars had been settled by the mid-1990s), a prolonged stock market boom, and a rejuvenating wave of immigration - contributed to the enhanced livability of New York City, the impact of the police department's emphasis on maintaining order, rather than merely reacting to crimes, clearly played a pivotal role.

Adapting the New York Model

When I began reading articles about New York City's zero tolerance approach, I was intrigued by the reduction in all types of criminal activity it yielded. The approach itself seemed to reflect a fundamental perception regarding the nature and effects of criminal activity: Citizens in industrialized societies have come to understand and accept that major crimes are going to occur, and they generally are satisfied with the law enforcement response to these types of crimes. However, the approach adopted by New York City addressed the types of miscreant activity and minor crimes that have an even greater impact on communities. When the police began to target those kinds of problems, crime rates in all classifications dropped.

Still, as Kennett square's Police Chief, I remained skeptical of whether a zero tolerance approach could produce similar results in our own small community. For one thing, the 12-member police department could hardly match the NYPD in resources or in the kind of blanket presence of uniformed officers that New York could deploy to enforce its focus on order maintenance.

Then, late in 1995, a discussion with an NYPD patrol officer began to change my perceptions. The officer expressed overwhelming enthusiasm for the quality-of-life approach being implemented by his department. The 9-year veteran related that for the first time in years, he actually enjoyed going to work because he could see noticeable signs of improvement in the community directly related to the actions of the police department. He further explained that precinct commanders now were given greater latitude to address the problems residents identified in their individual precincts. Although it took several months for the department as a whole to accept and become comfortable with this new orientation, the benefits to the morale of the department eventually paralleled the improvements to the quality of life the approach brought about in the community.

While the crime problem in Kennett square might seem mild compared to the problems of a big city, to residents they are no less pressing. Throughout its history, which dates back to the late 1800s, the Kennett square Police Department had strived to deal with issues before they became crime problems. During the late 1970s, the proliferation of drugs in the community ushered in new challenges for the police department. Two particular apartment complexes became open-air drug markets. As a life-long resident, I witnessed the deteriorating effects of crime in Kennett square during the 1980s and 1990s, and I resolved to address the problem.

Throughout the spring of 1996, I spoke to as many residents as I could. I asked about their concerns for the community and their specific fears and complaints regarding criminal activity. In addition to the burgeoning drug culture, the community faced other challenges that pose potential threats to the quality of life. The borough is the most ethnically diverse in Chester County, with a mix of white, black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, and Asian residents. The mushroom industry for which Kennett square is famous relies on a large migrant labor force. The proximity of the borough to two urban centers - Philadelphia, with a population of 1.5 million, and Wilmington, Delaware, with a population of 74,000 - provides a steady flow of transients. Two smaller cities sit directly to the north, adding to the flux of people through the borough.

Despite these conditions, however, the vast majority of residents expressed little fear of serious crime. They pointed to the police department's successful handling of the four homicides that occurred in 1993 as evidence of the department's ability to respond to major crimes, and they felt confident that the department could handle any serious crimes that occurred. In short, the citizens felt safe.

Yet, these informal interviews revealed a pervading sense of frustration among residents. They said that activity in the town never seemed to cease; parts of the community seemed open 24 hours a day. The noise forced many residents who wanted to enjoy cool summer evenings with their windows open to use the air conditioning instead. In addition, they identified one intersection as having a particularly high level of activity. Many suspected that the location served as a focal point for drug transactions in the community.

It became readily apparent from the information I collected that most of the problems irritating citizens and impacting the quality of life in the borough occurred between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. Problems were reported 7 days a week during these hours, but reports tended to increase toward the latter part of the week and peak on the weekends.

Unlike New York City, our police force did not have the resources to deploy large numbers of officers on the street at the same time. However, I decided that the concerns expressed by citizens warranted the type of approach being applied successfully in New York. In the summer of 1996, the Kennett square Police Department adopted a two-pronged response to the crime problems facing the community. The department would continue to focus on resolving major crimes when they occurred; but it also would adopt a zero tolerance policy toward public nuisance crimes - disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, public drinking, public urination, and other "minor" offenses - that had a negative impact on the quality of life in the borough.

Implementing the Policy

To avert charges that the policy had been framed and forced upon an unwitting community in a roughshod or haphazard way, I determined that the public should be given notice before the new policy went into effect. For 3 weeks, officers disseminated fliers explaining the policy and met with community groups to advise them that the department was not instituting the policy to target any individual group by race or economic standing. The department simply wanted to remove from the community the bad elements that affected all residents.

I mandated that each special operation would be led by a supervisor to help ensure that citizens' rights were protected. Despite the aggressive nature of the zero tolerance approach, the emphasis would be on clean, defensible arrests.

As the department had announced, 3 weeks after the policy was made public, it went into effect. As in New York City, one of the primary operational modifications from traditional reactive policing involved taking officers out of their cars and placing them on foot patrols. The officers worked in pairs at a minimum and in groups of three under the best circumstances. To demonstrate executive-level commitment to the new policy, I personally supervised the first four weekend operations. I then alternated weekends with a lieutenant who serves as the second-highest ranking officer in the department. From the start, officers expressed a higher level of enthusiasm for the new approach than I had anticipated.

In 3 weeks, the department made over 160 arrests, primarily for minor offenses but also for several serious crimes. During the next several weeks, arrests continued to mount, especially in areas that previously had been identified as criminal "hot spots" by residents. By the end of the seventh week, criminal and nuisance activity in the two apartment complexes and the intersection that once had served as all-night drug bazaars declined dramatically. Still, the police department maintained its aggressive zero tolerance orientation. As the policy entered its third month, I became concerned that the support of the borough council and the mayor would wane after the problems seemed to be under control. I knew that the problems would reemerge or possibly relocate to other areas of the community if the department did not continue to work proactively to maintain order. However, upon receiving positive comments from residents and observing noticeable improvements in the quality of life throughout the community, it became clear that municipal officials would provide long-term support for the policy.


In the 3-month period of June through August 1995, the year before the zero tolerance approach was adopted, the Kennett square Police Department made 39 arrests for public nuisance offenses. From June to August 1996, during the first year of the policy, officers made 220 such arrests. During the 3 summer months of 1997, as the department continued its proactive communitywide focus on maintaining order, officers made 89 such arrests, indicating a general decline in disorderly activity throughout the borough.

Close cooperation with the district justice (district attorney) has resulted in a very high conviction rate for offenders charged with summary offenses. In fact, most offenders plead guilty rather than contest the charges. At the same time, the police department's focus on defensible arrests has helped to limit public criticism of the department's zero tolerance orientation. During the first year of the policy, only one formal complaint was filed against the department, despite the increased number of arrests.(7) Minority groups who feared that the police department's zero tolerance approach might give officers an excuse to harass innocent people instead have found that they are among the primary beneficiaries of the policy. Minorities had been the targets in a large percentage of the crimes that occurred in the borough.(8)

As the prevalence of minor criminal activity began to fade and the quality of life began to improve throughout the community, police officers in Kennett square began to experience something their counterparts in New York City had by now grown accustomed to: Citizens began stopping officers to thank them for helping to reclaim their neighborhoods. The enhanced citizen support and involvement, in turn, has helped officers respond even more effectively to problems that do occur. Also as in New York City, Kennett square's focus on maintaining order and addressing minor criminal activity has resulted in a significant decline in serious (Part I) crime throughout the community.(9) Although criminologists and sociologists might debate the specific causal factors, it would be difficult to dismiss the correlation between an emphasis on enforcing quality-of-life ordinances and resulting declines in serious crime.


Today, more than 2 years after the police department adopted a zero tolerance policy, the open-air drug markets have closed down and have not relocated to other areas of the community. Incidents of disorderly conduct have fallen sharply. The din of car stereos blaring through the night has subsided. Come this summer, residents of Kennett square will be hoping for mild weather - they look forward to sleeping through cool summer evenings with the windows open.


1 Crime in the United States, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Federal Bureau of Investigation (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996). Part I offenses, as defined by the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, consist of the following crimes: Criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary/breaking and entering, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

2 Larry Platt, "In My Little Town," Philadelphia Magazine. November 1994.

3 Internal crime data, Kennett square, Pennsylvania, Police Department.

4 Tod Newcombe, "New York City Crime Drops 38 Percent," Government Technology, March 1997, 18-19.

5 John Leo, "You Might Even Want to Live There," U.S. News and World Report, November 4, 1996, 19.

6 James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, "The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows," The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982, 2938.

7 Christina Asquith, "Kennett square Tries Zero Tolerance" Philadelphia Inquirer, September 10, 1997.8 Ibid.

9 Supra note 3.

Chief Albert J. McCarthy commands the Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Police Department.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Author:McCarthy, Albert J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Managing major case investigations: suggestions for supervisors.
Next Article:Internal affairs investigation: the supervisor's role.

Related Articles
Shut up, they explained.
Genesis sues HCR over termination of Rx contract.
Genesis announces revised Multicare joint venture.
Shot in the arm.
The Right to Boyhood.
Are zero-tolerance policies a good idea? Zero-tolerance policies generally mandate specific punishments for various types of misconduct in school. Do...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |