In the public debate on Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's proposal to create municipal police forces, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is cited repeatedly as having reduced crime in his city and 'cleaned' it as if by waving a magic wand.

Yet, as usual, upon closer examination the picture is more complex. The anticrime policy implemented by Giuliani in the 1990s was based on the "broken windows" theory, according to which every instance of disorder, however small - such as a window broken by vandals - should be dealt with firmly. This sends a message of law enforcement and leads to a reduction in more serious crime, the theory goes. The implementation of this involved the aggressive pursuit of those who committed 'minor' infractions, such as painting graffiti, panhandling and jaywalking.

One may disagree with this theory. Is there indeed a link between zero tolerance for petty crime and a reduction in serious offenses? Is it not reasonable to assume that the opposite message would be sent, a deflation of criminal law and erosion of the stigma attached to being arrested and prosecuted? In his important book, "Illusion of Order," University of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt argues that the broken windows theory creates a new category of scapegoats - the homeless, minorities and various 'others' whom we categorize as disturbers of the peace by dint of our policing methods.

It's hard to argue with success. And yet, there is no certainty that Giuliani's policy can be called a success story. The decline in New York City's crime rate began before Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993. In the second half of the 1990s crime fell significantly in cities across the United States, including those that did not adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward crime. Criminologists attribute the decline to economic growth, changes in drug trafficking and consumption patterns and an increase in police hirings, among other things. There is no solid evidence linking increased arrests of disturbers of the public order to the decline in violent crime.

Clear evidence exists, however, that the implementation of the broken-windows theory exacted a serious price in terms of civil rights violations in New York. There was a significant increase in the number of false arrests, and during a five-year period there was a 37-percent increase in the number of complaints of police brutality. The main victims of this policy were blacks and Hispanics. The racial tensions focusing on police activity reached its apex in the cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was tortured by officers in a police station in Brooklyn. Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was shot dead by officers at the entrance to his apartment, while unarmed. The police methods employed in New York were officially deemed "the quality of life initiative," but there is no doubt that the quality of life of many who were not from the higher socioeconomic groupings, for whom clashes with police became more frequent and more violent, did not improve.

The U.S. criminal justice system is the subject of much criticism. Over 2.25 million Americans are behind bars. Half of those in prison did not commit violent crimes and some 70 percent are nonwhite. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Nonetheless, there is a provincial trend in Israel to view anything originating 'in America' as a model for emulation. Prominent examples include the privatization of prisons as well as the trend toward long prison terms combined with minimum sentencing guidelines that minimize judicial autonomy in sentencing. It is important that the ideas that cross the ocean also be accompanied by the criticisms of these ideas. It is the only way to really learn from the experience of others.

The writer is Israel's deputy chief public defender and teaches criminal justice at Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University.