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War Crimes and Misdemeanors: Understanding "Zero-Tolerance" Policing as a Form of Collective Punishment and Human Rights Violation


A fundamental principle of criminal law is that individuals may only be punished for offenses which they have personally committed; any punish-ment must be personal and individual. To that end, international law proscribes as collective punishment any sanction imposed on a population without regard to individual culpability for the offense that provokes the penalty. Compstat-based zero-tolerance or order-maintenance policing, the prevailing thesis in contemporary law enforcement, punishes entire com-munities for the crimes of a few. More specifically, zero-tolerance policing seeks to deter violent crime not by apprehending those relatively few perpetrators of crime, but by indiscriminate search-and-seizure operations and wholesale misdemeanor arrests for minor quality-of-life offenses in the neighborhoods where violent crimes occur, typically poor communities of color. As a form of collective punishment, such policing is contrary to international human rights law.