Joining the dots: Which leads to less crime – zero tolerance, or removing lead pollution?

PSO at Richmond station

Our state government in the past has cited New York City zero-tolerance policies introduced by Rudolph Giuliani as inspiration for measures like Protective Service Officers, which will eventually see two armed guards on every metropolitan railway station after 6pm:

Mr Ryan said he was intent on establishing a Giuliani-style zero tolerance approach in Victoria, and rebuilding public confidence in community safety.

He wanted to knit together the various individual initiatives already undertaken, such as increased police numbers and more protective service officers and transit police patrolling trains and stations, into a “holistic policy for the community at large”.

Herald Sun 23/3/2012: Peter Ryan is ready for a new mission

Those who have read Freakonomics will know there is considerable doubt over whether zero-tolerance policies were actually the cause of the drop in crime in New York City.

This new article notes the problem with assuming zero-tolerance is the solution:

… it’s not just New York that has seen a big drop in crime. In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. Washington, DC, didn’t have either Giuliani or Bratton, but its violent crime rate has dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas’ has fallen 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent.

…and it goes on to point out research has shown a very strong correlation, not just in the USA but across the world, between the removal of lead from petrol (known to inhibit brain development in children) and later drops in crime:

If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you’d expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that’s exactly what she (graduate student researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes) found.


Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

It goes on to speculate that a great way forward in crime prevention is to continue to clean up lead contamination from urban areas.

It’s a fascinating read, highly recommended: America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead.

The government can probably argue that PSOs on all stations after 6pm is about improving perceptions of safety, and confidence for passengers. Given statistics have repeatedly shown little crime at most stations (and about half of that which does occur is before 6pm), it would have a harder time convincing me the PSO rollout is actually going to make us safer — particularly if the justification is reliant on shaky “zero tolerance” reasoning.

PSOs to check tickets, but won’t have #Myki readers? That won’t work.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, talking about deployment of Protective Service Officers on stations:

“From time to time they will check tickets. When these PSOs see a group of young people that they believe are up to no good on a railway station a really helpful tool is to say, ‘Show me your ticket’. If they haven’t got a ticket, off they go,” he said.

He denied they would be equipped with Myki card readers.

– Herald Sun online — Footscray station next stop for PSOs

The problem here is that without Myki readers, there is no way that the PSOs can tell if a Myki card is valid. They can’t tell if it has any credit loaded on it, they can’t tell if it has been touched-on.

PSOs at Flinders Street

PSOs having the ability to do ticket checks does make sense. Chief Commissioner Lay is right; it is a useful tool to help ensure people on a railway station are actually there to catch a train. And given officers will eventually patrol quiet stations with little or no crime, they might as well check tickets.

But a ticket check where you can’t tell if someone is fare-evading or not is not much of a ticket check.

And the requirement for being on a station is not just “a ticket” but “a valid ticket”.

Along with the statistics showing that around half of all assaults on stations occur before 6pm when PSOs won’t be on duty, it’s just another one of these things which suggests to me the PSOs plan has not been properly thought through.

Something missed at PSO training? Stand on the left!

The first Protective Service Officers started duty tonight at Flinders Street and Southern Cross Stations. They may not be the best solution to public transport security, but I’m sure passengers will welcome them, and wish them luck.

Yes, PSOs get less training than police. That’s because they have more restricted powers (limited to railway stations and surrounds), and more restricted duties (they’re not going to go and investigate burglaries, for example).

But something their training should include — especially if they’re going to keep commuters on-side — is to stand on the left of the escalators.

Something missed at PSO training: Stand on the left of the escalators