Zoning out disorder: assessing contemporary practices of urban social control

Published date25 August 2009
Date25 August 2009
AuthorSteve Herbert,Katherine Beckett
Steve Herbert and Katherine Beckett
In Seattle and other cities, recent expansions of trespass law make the
regulation of public space easier and more extensive. A range of new tools
allow police officials to clear spaces of those deemed undesirable; they
define zones of exclusion and increase the police’s power to make arrests.
The use of these tools extends contemporary practices of using criminal
law to address instances of urban ‘‘disorder.’’ We draw on data from
Seattle to catalog some of these new tools, the capabilities they create,
and the implications they generate. One important such implication
is that they work to push undesirables so far to the margins – spatially,
socially, politically, legally – as to render them far outside the body
politic. The use of these techniques thus raises important questions about
the advisability of addressing social problems by increasing the power of
the criminal law.
Special Issue: New Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 47, 1–25
Copyright r2009 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1108/S1059-4337(2009)0000047004
It is early on a weekday morning. Herbert is riding in a police van cruising
Seattle’s Aurora Avenue. A state highway, Aurora was once the city’s primary
north–south arterial. For this reason, it is lined with several motels. Many of
these are now somewhat rundown, and reportedly serve as sites for the
exchange of drugs and sexual services.
Also in the van are two officers. One works for the Seattle Police
Department, the other for the Washington State Department of Corrections.
Their partnership is part of a ‘‘Neighborhood Corrections Initiative.’’ Each
officer brings unique capacities to the enterprise. The SPD officer can access
databases that can search by name and by vehicle for information of criminal
wants or warrants, and for such restrictions as suspended driver’s licenses.
He can also make an arrest for perceived violations of the law. The DOC
officer’s database is confined to those with any history with his Department.
He is particularly interested in anyone who is ‘‘DOC active’’, i.e., currently on
probation or parole. The DOC officer seeks to determine whether anyone
under supervision is in compliance with the various conditions of probation or
parole. In the pursuit of such verification, the DOC officer can search anyone
under supervision, as well as his/her vehicle and domicile. If he discovers a
violation, he can make a ‘‘DOC arrest.’’ Given their respective databases and
capabilities, the two possess an impressive combined power.
The officers are headed to an Aurora motel that they describe as particularly
notorious. The DOC officer wants to check on a registered sex offender who is
a resident of the motel. As they enter the parking lot, however, they see two
men walk from the lot and onto a side street. The SPD officer heads off in
pursuit. He catches the men a half-block away, and orders their hands on a
parked car. He retrieves their identification, and radios in a request for
information about each of them. What he subsequently learns leads him to
arrest each man for criminal trespass. The arrest is enabled by the ‘‘Aurora
Motel Criminal Trespass Program,’’ created by the Seattle Police Department
in 2005. Twenty-five motels participate in the program, which enables SPD
officers to ‘‘admonish’’ anyone on the premises of any of those motels who they
believe lacks a legitimate purpose for being there. Once admonished, a citizens
can be arrested for criminal trespass if they are subsequently found on the
property of any of the motels for any reason for a period of two years.
As he escorts the handcuffed men to the back of the van, the SPD officer
tells them he has no choice in the matter, because a ‘‘zero tolerance’’ policy is
in operation on Aurora. ‘‘I don’t care if you go downtown, to Tacoma, or to
Shoreline,’’ he tells them. ‘‘You need to be anywhere but Aurora.’’

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