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Winter 1991
   
Reclaiming the Subway
George L. Kelling
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George Kelling is a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and a fellow of Harvard University in criminal justice.

At midday in a New York City subway train, a man carrying a paper cup approaches a woman and thrusts the cup in front of her. She ignores him. He thrusts the cup nearly under her nose. She glances about, checking her situation—the train is approaching the terminal. If he’s hungry, she says, there’s a church nearby where he can get some food—she is specific about its location. He glowers at her, and pushing the cup even closer says, “Mind your own f—in’ business, b—ch.” The train stops. The woman gets off the train.

In November of 1989, the Legal Action Center for the Homeless sued New York City subway officials to overturn the transit authority’s rule against panhandling in the subway. They succeeded: In January 1990, federal District Court Judge Leonard Sand ruled begging in the subway a First Amendment right.

That decision, eventually overturned, touched off a new round in the 20-year-old debate about maintaining order in the subway. The court case was just part of a broader campaign by civil libertarians and advocates for the homeless, a campaign that threatened to undo the transit authority’s efforts to restore public order underground and assure riders a safe, unthreatening, and even pleasant journey.

The transit authority had just completed a stunningly successful anti-graffiti campaign that David Gunn, then president of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), had made a top priority. Now Gunn and other transit authority leaders wanted to show riders that the transit authority could enforce longstanding rules about appropriate behavior on the subway. In particular they wanted to get under control the vagrants who for many passengers had come to symbolize the hassles and occasional horrors of the subway system. The centerpiece of this effort was the highly publicized Operation Enforcement, which was launched in October 1989 and led directly to Judge Sand’s ruling.

For most subway passengers the first phase of Operation Enforcement may have seemed like little more than an ad campaign, headlined by an eye-grabbing poster featuring a burly policeman’s hand holding a shield and a list of rules for passenger behavior in big bold print. Yet the fight for Operation Enforcement, its not-yet-decided fate, and its potential accomplishments, will reveal a great deal about the future prospects of this city.

Though Operation Enforcement was largely a police operation, its primary goal was not to fight crime but to restore orderliness to the subway. That may seem an odd priority when serious crimes like murder, robbery, and mugging are plaguing the system. Wouldn’t it make more sense to concentrate on those serious problems and ignore merely disorderly or unpleasant behavior? New Yorkers are tough, after all. Can’t they take it? Can’t they put up with the grit, grime, and minor unpleasantness of life?

No. That is, not without making the far more serious problems fostered by disorder much worse. Disorder, unpleasant in itself, breeds crime, and just as importantly, breeds the fear of crime.

People are, of course, frightened by serious crime. But people are also scared by the behavior of unpredictable and obstreperous people—youths, drunks, the mentally ill, hustlers, prostitutes, and panhandlers. We have only recently understood the depth and pervasiveness of this fear. Surveys from throughout the United States have shown that people will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid disorder. Elderly persons cross the street to avoid groups of youths, or even a single loitering teen. Women avoid places, including subways, in which drunks or youths hang out. Citizens believe the most dangerous spots are not the places where crime is the highest, but rather where disorder is concentrated: places like the subway.

Real crime rates are lower underground than above, but citizens are more apprehensive in the subway than on streets. This fear matters, to the citizens and to the city. People frightened of crime are already victims. They isolate themselves behind multiple locks; they forswear walks in the evening and nights on the town; they avoid public parks, public transportation, and other public amenities; finally they desert cities entirely, including this city.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) surveys indicate that although only 11 percent of passengers have a firsthand experience with crime, 97 percent take some form of defensive initiative before entering the subway to avoid confrontations: 75 percent don’t wear expensive jewelry or clothing, 69 percent avoid “certain people,” 68 percent avoid certain platform locations, and 61 percent avoid the last car.

The average person’s fear of disorder is not irrational; the link between disorder, fear, and serious crime is very strong. This link is the key to what has come to be known as the Broken Windows theory of crime, so called because of a 1982 Atlantic article of that title written by James Wilson and myself. If a broken window is left unrepaired, it signifies that no one cares.

When no one cares, more windows get broken and damage spreads, Likewise, ignoring disorder—youths intimidating adults, for example—also sends the message that no one cares. Youths are emboldened; their drinking becomes commonplace. Prostitutes and drug dealers “hang out.” Such locations become susceptible to minor criminality, such as vandalism. Intimidation escalates. Mugging and robbery follow.

The insight that disorder breeds both fear of crime and crime itself is a driving force behind Police Commissioner Lee Brown’s campaign to reorganize the aboveground cops for the job of restoring order to ravaged communities. The Broken Windows pattern is also evident in the subways. In the wake of a sustained rise in disorder, much of it caused by the influx of vagrants, serious crime is increasing. In April of 1990, 1,472 felonies were reported, up from 1,276 the year before, and up more than 40 percent from the 1,041 felonies reported in April 1988. Growing disorder in the subways is not the only cause: Drugs, the increase in crime “upstairs,” and disorder on the streets surely are part of the explanation. Yet disorder plays an important role, and subway riders (and would-be riders) by their comments and their behavior show they regard it as a ma)or problem. Operation Enforcement confronted that problem of disorder head on and immediately ran head on into powerful opposition.

The First Skirmish—Graffiti

Some years before Operation Enforcement was launched, the subway fought a preliminary skirmish with disorder, a skirmish important because it validated important parts of the Broken Windows thesis, because it demonstrated that disorder can be conquered, and because it taught us a great deal about how to right disorder on. a broader front.

The first skirmish dealt with physical disorder: graffiti on trains. By the early 1980s, graffitists’ logos, slogans, and portraits—”tags”—covered every car. The magnitude of damage is hard to describe to those who have never seen it. For apologists such as Norman Mailer, graffiti was a vibrant art form hardly deserving police action. Many, even those who did not share Mailer’s taste in art, believed that police had more important matters with which to deal than vandalism.

Nathan Glazer, however, in his 1979 Public Interest article, “On Subway Graffiti in New York,” understood its meaning to the riding public. Graffitists, other disorderly persons, and criminals “who rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers ... are part of one world of uncontrollable predators.” Graffiti signaled citizens that public officials were unable to stop even relatively minor lawbreakers, let alone serious predators: Graffiti told citizens the subways were out of control.

At the time of Glazer’s article, six years of efforts launched by Mayors Lindsay and Koch had gone into eradicating graffiti—to no avail. Glazer himself feared that it might be an insoluble problem. Subway graffiti appeared to be a permanent part of New York’s culture. Detaining graffitists and making them clean cars failed: It was too expensive and gave graffitists inside information that helped them make their creations more lasting. Parking trains in “target-hardened” locations failed because the areas to be secured were too large and it was too easy for the youths to cut through fences. The media kept the city from using attack dogs to protect trains. Arrests of graffiti vandals increased yearly, with no impact. Police urged social and group work for the graffitists; it did not work.

Nevertheless, on May 12, 1989, almost exactly five years after the MTA launched its Clean Car Program, the last graffiti-covered car in the New York City subway system was removed from service. New York City subway trains are now among the cleanest in the world.

The Clean Car Program started by pulling graffiti-covered trains out of service, cleaning the cars, and sending them back out on the road. Police were assigned to ride fulltime on the first clean trains, and clean trains went into special protection yards. But the program went further; it guaranteed that the first “broken window” would not lay untended and lead to the next. Once a train was entered into the program and cleaned, it would never again be used while graffiti was on it. If a train was tagged by a graffitist, either it would be cleaned within two hours, or it would be removed from service. As a result, graffitists would never see their tags on clean trains again. They might be able to paint their tags over other graffiti on cars that were not yet entered into the program, but not on clean cars.

Why did this effort succeed while all others failed? First, because David Gunn, president of the NYCTA, found graffiti intolerable and made removing it his earliest and highest priority. Second, it succeeded because it attacked the basic motives of graffitists. They want their work seen. Frustrate that motive by never letting tagged train cars on the road and graffiti will be defeated.

Officials knew they were winning when graffitists who managed to penetrate yards tagged graffiti-covered cars rather than clean ones. Graffitists were learning the rules, rules which I believe had some moral force over and above the “Incentive” effect of never letting the graffitists show their work. A clean train is a clear sign that the rules forbid graffiti and the rules are being enforced. A graffiti-covered train signals that the rules against graffiti are not very serious, that the “custom of the country” allows for tagging trains.

Early efforts to deal with graffiti assumed it was a law enforcement problem, so it was natural that the police deal with it. They did. They arrested graffitists—again and again. More trains got tagged, even as arrests increased. Meanwhile, other departments conducted “business as usual.” Gunn changed this. He understood that the graffiti problem was a complex mix of vandalism, poor maintenance, inadequate leadership, and lack of resolve. Through his close oversight of an interdepartmental task force charged with yearly goals—goals they exceeded every year—graffiti on trains was wiped out.

Street People in the Subway

Most disorder is more complicated than graffiti. Graffiti is tangible and the law proscribes it. In most cases, however, disorder is an ambiguous concept that refers to “improper” behavior at specific times and places: being conspicuously drunk; pushing and shoving in restricted spaces; “hanging out” and drinking on street corners; standing around, scantily clad, on residential streets soliciting johns; allowing one’s boom box to get out of control. Usually such disorderly behavior, while offensive, is not illegal or not seriously so. For the most part disorder is not defined by the law books but by people who “know it when they see it.”

In cities like New York, with its rich stew of racial and ethnic ingredients, establishing a standard of order is an especially tricky business. “Proper” and “improper” may be hard to define: Each group has some unique beliefs about decency and indecency. Still, most people behave with restraint and neither easily give nor take offense. Strangers look for clues to neighborhood standards. In countless ways, citizens learn the “rules of the street” and abide by them. In this way diversity becomes a cherished value of cosmopolitan life.

When individuals do break these informal rules, more formal processes are invoked. Bus drivers reprimand and perhaps ask noisy persons to leave the bus. Ushers hush talking theatergoers. Restaurant owners, shopkeepers, security personnel, etc., all exert control. Sometimes, of course, the police get involved. A police officer notices behavior that is out of place, and with a nod, gesture, or brief comment communicates disapproval. Other times officers are called by citizens when a miscreant refuses to behave. But in either case, the officer’s action is different from the actions of the disapproving citizen or shopkeeper: The officer is the last resort. To use Brandeis University Professor Egon Bittner’s phrase, the officer is the “or else” of society. If someone will not behave, police officers can force compliance.

These forms of control generally work. But often if the first disorderly act or person is ignored—the first drunk down is ignored, the first obstreperous youth not restrained—it is soon followed by another, and another. Thus begins what Northwestern University Professor Wesley Skogan has called “the downward spiral of urban decay.” One drunk or overbearing youth may not be very fearsome. But a threshold is reached (and it differs from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city) at which citizens lose confidence that a reproach will matter. Intimidated by the apparent change in the rules, or even fearful of retaliation, they stop playing their part in maintaining order. In the worst of situations, citizens fear even calling the police.

Such situations become worse still when miscreants define their actions as expressions of their rights and their cause is taken up by social and legal advocates. Herein lies the problem in New York’s subway. The indigents hanging out, living, begging, urinating, vomiting, threatening and screaming at passersby are the single biggest obstacle to restoring public order and public confidence underground. Yet in the name of civil rights and compassion, advocacy groups oppose the transit system’s offers to restore order, and defend these people’s rights to continue their disruptive behavior.

Transit authority officials estimate, probably conservatively, that 600 to 900 persons nightly use trains as shelter. A like number use subway stations and passageways. It has become common practice to refer to this population as the “homeless.” Many are. They are, however, a particularly troubled and troublesome distillate of the homeless population. Rita Schwartz describes them in her study, The Homeless: The Impact on the Transportation Industry, published by the Port Authority.

Homeless people who congregate at transportation centers are: younger males, mentally ill women, older male alcoholics. They are hard-core street people. Families are rarely found in transportation centers. Those who inhabit these facilities are disaffiliated, without reliable family ties and rootless. Their last known address is usually the city where they are now homeless. They are long-term residents of their city. They are more chronically homeless, and often have behavior which prohibits their use of shelters, except for specific activities such as a place for a meal or a shower.

According to MTA estimates, at least 40 percent of those using the subway for shelter are mentally ill, approximately 70 percent are substance abusers, and a substantial proportion are both mentally ill and substance abusers. Many of those who hang out in the subway have lengthy histories of arrest for minor and serious crimes.

Moreover, large numbers of hustlers and thugs mix with street people. They exploit the concern of citizens for the genuinely homeless by panhandling and hustling in intimidating or even threatening ways. They also rob and steal, making capital of the chaos created by large numbers of incapacitated and emotionally disturbed persons.

Under the cover of this chaos, and in an atmosphere of growing disorder, petty criminality began to flourish till it threatened to cripple the system. Fare beating became more common and soon turned into a full-fledged scam. Opportunistic hustlers graduated from jumping over or “backcocking,” turnstiles to “coin sucking” (blocking the token receptacle and sucking out a deposited token); and, most outrageously, to disabling token receptacles, holding open gates, and collecting fares from passengers herded into the scam. During rush hours this latter maneuver can result in bedlam, with angry, yelling, pushing passengers backed up clear into the street.

Some youths attacked the token receptacles themselves, having learned how to quickly spring open the door of the receptacle and get away with hundreds or thousands of tokens in a matter of seconds. (Vaults on the turnstiles finally stopped this.) The various fare scams and thefts cost the city from $60 to $120 million a year, not to mention the indignation, demoralization, and just plain fear of many citizens. As the chaos worsened, so did serious crimes. Robberies of passengers have soared in the past few years.

In early 1989, passenger surveys and focus groups fairly shouted that enough was enough. Though still concerned for the homeless, passengers were finding the behavior of street people in the subway intolerable. Passengers believed that transit and police officials were losing control of the subway, and that the system had started on that spiral of decline city dwellers have learned to dread. The first step on that spiral was the spread of disorder. In New York, in the subways, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, subway vagrants are one of the most important sources of disorder. To restore order on the subway we must get that problem under control.

Operation Enforcement

The people who run the subways are as concerned as most New Yorkers about the condition of the homeless. Their early efforts to deal with the problem reflected that concern and reflected as well the common view of the homeless: They were victims of public neglect in need of services, such as jobs, treatment, and temporary shelter. Consequently, transit efforts concentrated on linking the homeless who frequented the subways with outreach workers and social services. The transit police department created a 15-person police Homeless Task Force to escort social service workers to the places inhabited by the homeless. The impact of these efforts was negligible, largely because the transit System’s assumptions about the “homeless” were wrong.

The vast majority of those hanging out in the subway—upward of 90 percent—rejected shelters. Their usual excuse for doing so was that the subway is safer than the shelters, a claim picked up by the homeless advocacy groups as well. The facts say otherwise. An average of six homeless persons a month died of preventable causes in the subway during 1989, with the worst month being December, when 14 died. On one December weekend alone, four vagrants died in the subway: One was hit by a train; a second was killed by another homeless person; and two died of hypothermia. Although data about crime in shelters have not been made available by HRA, I doubt that six people a month have died in them from preventable causes.

In reality the safety argument is a code for quite different complaints. For the homeless themselves it indicates their desire to avoid places with rules and be left alone to do as they please in the subway. As Rita Schwartz has observed:

Homeless people often claim that shelters are unsafe and that the street is preferable to staying in a shelter. In reality, it appears that many do not or cannot use a shelter because they do not want to obey the rules and are inconvenienced or uncomfortable with the constraints placed on them by a facility.

When the safety argument is used by homeless advocates it is a political code for their judgment that the shelters are far less good than they should be. I am willing to believe that city shelters need upgrading. But I am not willing to have the subways—or the homeless who live in them—held hostage on this issue. When people are dying in the subway, it hardly seems appropriate to use a political slogan to justify keeping them there.

As the problem of vagrancy worsened, new proposals for dealing with it began to surface in the transit bureaucracy. In the spring of 1989, MTA Chairman Robert Kiley asked me to review one such proposal, which Dean Esserman, legal counsel of the Transit Police Department, skeptically dubbed “Commando Cleaning”: Large cleaning crews would move into an area, hose it down, and aggressively clean it; police would eject the street people in support of these activities; maintenance crews would truck away whatever debris was left.

I opposed the plan. I imagined the media splash: high-power hoses; police ejecting wet persons who had lost whatever property they had; advocates challenging police; and who knows what other mayhem if things really got out of control. Contrary to the Commando Cleaning concept, which came down to little more than sneaky harassment of certain people, I believed that any plan for dealing with vagrancy in the subway should be targeted on misbehavior, not on a class of people. Moreover, the tactics employed should reflect values of which officers could be proud and which they could communicate to the public. Finally the plan should employ good, professional police practices, rather than “dirty work” done on the sly, against which good cops inevitably rebel.

(In the summer of 1990, the Port Authority tried its own version of Commando Cleaning, with predictable results. The people charged with hosing down the homeless hated the job, the press jumped all over them, and the program soon collapsed.)

In April 1989, in response to my objections and concerns, David Gunn, president of the NYCTA, established a Police Study Group consisting of transit police of various ranks, police legal counsel, and a consultant (me) to develop a plan.

One problem we faced was that the Transit Police Department had been in limbo for some time. Since the early 1980s, efforts had been afoot to merge it with NYPD. Transit police officers were recruited and trained by NYPD and then assigned to transit by chance, a deeply resented assignment for almost all new officers. Not surprisingly, in almost every respect the Transit Police Department (TPD) aped NYPD and largely failed to develop its own traditions and esprit. Morale was low. Equipment, especially radios and vehicles, was obsolete. There were no serious plans for its improvement, adding to officer resentment. District facilities were impossible. Mobilizing the TPD to take on a problem as pervasive and serious as disorder in the subways would be a major undertaking.

Moreover, quite aside from the particular difficulties of the transit police, it is difficult to mobilize any contemporary police department against disorder. For a number of reasons police administrators and officers alike are wary of such campaigns. In the first place, in a world in which almost all forms of behavior and expression are seen as a matter of individual rights or lifestyle—including drunkenness, craziness, lewdness, and intimidation—the idea of enforcing civility, that is the assertion of communal rights and of citizens’ obligations to each other, appears quaintly Victorian. It can also put cops on a short road to confrontations with the courts and professional civil libertarians.

Moreover, police administrators and their bosses in municipal government are deeply aware that the complaints of the civil libertarians have often been valid; police have abused their authority in the past, enforcing order with but little respect for law. As Wilson and I noted in our article, “Broken Windows”:

[T]he police in this earlier period assisted in ... reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer.

Rather than tempt their members to commit such abuses, police organizations have tended to ignore problems of disorder. They have concentrated instead on “law enforcement”: enforcement of criminal laws against murder and assault, rape, robbery, and burglary. Transit police tend to be especially vehement about this. Having been for so long perceived as inferior to street cops, they want to do “real” police work. They prefer to focus on crimes in progress rather than on the apparently more mundane task of maintaining order so that crime does not break out, or on positively distasteful tasks such as moving drunks and derelicts out of public places.

Yet despite the police focus on serious crime, citizens take problems of disorder seriously. They do call on police to deal with those problems, and in the process cops learn that maintaining order can be difficult, frustrating, and legally perilous. Officers educate, give information, negotiate, cajole, warn, give advice, counsel, and exhort. Rarely do they resort to any “or else.” They take most such actions on their own initiative. The officers learn that there are risks if citizens complain, that their authority for dealing with disorder is often very thin, and that no official credit will accrue to their records for such work.

Yet though the TPD was a demoralized department about to take on a task most officers find even more demoralizing, we also had some things going for us. Police in the subway have one important advantage over their cousins on the street. Proper behavior for the subway is codified in written rules with the force of law. Such rules are required by the inherent dangers in an electrified, high-speed train system, the volume of people who use it, and the fact that people pay to use it. Thus smoking, panhandling, obstructing, lying down, use of amplification devices, unregulated selling, and a variety of other behaviors are officially proscribed. And while selling newspapers and playing musical instruments are allowed in specified areas, nothing “goes” on the trains. There was a seet of rules to be enforced and their enforcement could be a powerful tool in restoring order.

This had occurred to some leaders in the department already. Richard Gollinge, a district captain assigned to the Police Study Group, for some time had aggressively championed keeping order by enforcing the rules. Gollinge was unabashedly a Broken Windows advocate. In his district he already had rule enforcement policies in effect that incorporated the essential principles on which I wanted to base Operation Enforcement: They focused on behavior, not a class of people; they had a rationale that was ethically and constitutionally defensible; and they shifted responsibility for order from special units to patrol. (Since William Bratton has become chief of the TPD, Gollinge has been promoted to one-star chief, the first time a captain jumped three ranks in the history of the Police Department.)

I was adamant that any TPD effort must have a clear, defensible, and public rationale. Only if subway officials clearly articulated and promoted their view of propriety could they avoid being cast as abusive and insensitive. Similarly, line officers from the Police Study Group wanted to ensure that their colleagues were not left holding the bag if troubles developed when they enforced rules. They wanted strong endorsement of rule enforcement efforts by Kiley and Gunn, explicit instructions to line officers, and they wanted the rules of behavior posted throughout the system.

The rationale articulated for Operation Enforcement was obvious enough: Those who hang out in the subway put themselves, other passengers, and the system as a whole at risk. The risks for the homeless include injury, illness, and death. The risks for passengers include fear, victimization, and the potential of health problems. And finally, disorder undermines not only the subway but the quality of life and the economic vitality of New York City, which is uniquely dependent among American cities on underground transit.

As for official support and clear orders, Kiley and Gunn strongly endorsed the plan, and TPD officers got specific on how the program would work. Captain Dennis O’Keefe (now Inspector) and his staff from the training academy developed an escalating response system: First offer services, then educate, warn, eject, cite, and if all else fails, arrest. Officers were always to use the least intrusive method of rule enforcement. These escalatory responses became the heart of a series of video training vignettes that presented rule violations and the application of the escalated response system.

Most significantly, the officers won the point that subway rules and regulations would be conspicuously posted. Posters listing the rules would show that officers were not acting capriciously or arbitrarily. Posting rules raised complex issues, however. A crucial question confronting the Operation Enforcement planners, one debated yet today, was whether the new campaign for order should be widely publicized. Everyone involved in Operation Enforcement knew that it would take time, at least five years, to firmly establish order in the subway. Some opposed a broad public marketing campaign for fear that the public would expect too much too soon, and when disappointed dismiss the program as a failure. As it turned out, this was not an unrealistic fear.

Ultimately, transit authority officials, led by staff of the MTA, made the decision to be “out front” about the campaign, the rules it would enforce, and the philosophy and tactics underlying the program. The MTA not only posted the rules and other advertising materials in the subways, but passed out millions of handouts explaining the rules. The campaign also included newspaper ads, meetings with consumer groups, op-ed pieces, and appearances on radio and television shows by transit leaders and spokesmen for the campaign.

Battle Is Joined

Operation Enforcement was launched on October 25, 1989 and the confrontations between police and NYCTA authorities and the homeless advocates began immediately. The advocates objected to the operation on the grounds that “nooks and crannies” should be available for the homeless to do as they pleased, that is, to live in, and that passive panhandling should be allowed.

Almost nightly, advocates confronted the police in the subway as the officers tried to enforce the posted rules. Protests were generally arranged for late hours, 2:00 A.M. for example. Homeless advocates and New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) officials would appear in a station in which many street people were congregated. Often, the head of the NYCLU was there, as were the media. Some district commanders, especially Gollinge, also made it their business to show up.

Generally, the confrontations followed a pattern. In the presence of advocates, a person violated the “obstructing” rule (by lying down). Officers offered to find shelter and indicated that the person was violating the rules and would have to stop. Advocates, often civil rights lawyers, disputed the validity of the rule, the officer’s interpretation of the rule, and the right of the officer to intervene. Legal counsel for the TPD was often present. Fortunately, officers consistently reacted with patience and restraint, and no major incident occurred.

Despite these incidents the program got off to a solid start, helped at first by unseasonably warm weather, which usually reduces the number of vagrants in the system. Even after the weather turned unseasonably cold, transit authority counts of people using the subway for shelter and other disorderly incidents declined from the previous years. The posters, though essential to the program in the view of many, including myself, did cause just the problem that we had feared: The operation achieved immediate visibility and raised expectations that could not possibly be fulfilled in a matter of months. Some MTA officials began calling the program a failure by December, and the press was not far behind, with the New York Times reporting on our “perceived failure” by January.

Judge Sand did not help. Though his decision was overturned within weeks, momentum counts for much in a program like Operation Enforcement, and he cost us some of that. Also, because of Sand, the posters that included the “no begging” rule had to be taken down, probably causing many riders to think the program was over. It was not and is not, but the publicity campaign was essentially dropped and the Operation Enforcement name is no longer used.

There were other stumbling blocks. The media representation of our efforts was generally fair, but the advocates hit us hard, especially on the talk shows, accusing the MTA of heartlessness and racism, and the cops of brutality. The police union opposed the operation on the grounds that the police should concentrate on serious crime. The work itself was discouraging for officers. The vagrants would break rules and be ejected, only to reappear a few minutes later.

Nevertheless, about 50 percent of the officers seemed to try to live up to the spirit of the operation. This may seem like a low number, but for those with experience in such operations it was gratifyingly high. The officers, it must be remembered, were being asked to change fundamentally their professional practices, the goals of their work, and even their self-images. That is a tall order, especially when the goal is so daunting. The police response, more than anything, persuaded us that with constant and persistent effort the program could work and order could be restored to the subways.

In the spring of 1990, Operation Enforcement, as a demonstration project, went out of business, but only because the new chief of TPD, William Bratton, a staunch Broken Windows man, incorporated the goals and methods of the operation into the regular procedures of TPD. Bratton has established three top priorities for his officers: Stop the subway robberies, control fare beating, and restore order to the subway. The goal of “taking back the subway,” i.e., restoring order and enforcing the rules, is likely to be a major theme in the MTA’s new advertising campaign. And as winter sets in and the vagrants converge on the system, enforcement efforts will become more visible.

As that happens, there is every reason to believe that the conflict over proper use of the subway will heat up again. The MTA, NYCTA, and TPD have no intention of backing down in their attempts to take back the subways. The city government has done little to substantially improve the capacity or quality of city shelters. The conundrums of what is called homelessness are so difficult that many people would be pleased if the problem stayed “underground.” We still hear irresponsible proposals to turn the subway itself into a shelter by setting up temporary showers and food lines in the system. This idea is nearly as dangerous to the vagrants as it would be to passengers and the system itself. The vagrants, with all their personal pathologies and behavioral problems, refuse help, shatter order, threaten passengers, and create a breeding ground for crime and, as we now suspect, diseases such as tuberculosis.

There is no reason to think that homeless advocates and civil libertarians will become any less strident in this conflict over not only the rules, but the very purpose of the subway. The advocates make lofty claims for the rights of their clients. The truth is the vagrants want to live without rules. And the advocates want the homeless to be in the subways and highly visible to the public, so as to make a political statement about the quality of shelters. Some homeless advocates have actually tried to persuade vagrants who have voluntarily boarded a bus to a shelter to disembark and stay in the subway.

How can the subway vagrants and other homeless people with personal problems be helped? I do not know. I do not believe that anyone really does. But I do know that their interests are not served by allowing them to turn the subway into a flophouse.

The policies of the Police Study Group and Operation Enforcement are now part of the ethos of the current police administration. They are simple policies. They assume that everyone has the right to use the subway for transportation. Those who use a public facility, however, obligate themselves to the common good and bind themselves to the rules of civility. Minimally, they are obliged to obey laws and regulations. Passenger safety and security require this; passenger comfort and quality transportation commend it.

When individuals fail to meet their minimal obligations they should be informed of those obligations, warned if their bad behavior persists, and ejected if they refuse to behave. The police must do these things respectfully. But this is not a game: Lie down, be informed, sit up until the police leave, and then lie down again. When it is obvious that someone knows the rules and is violating them, he should be immediately ejected. In good faith, police should offer to find services for the genuinely homeless.

In other words, police should restore order to the subway. Those who trivialize the issue by suggesting that police are too busy and ought to be “catching criminals” simply do not know what they are talking about. Of course criminals should be caught, but catching the criminal who has just assaulted and robbed a passenger is of scant solace to the passenger. For that reason the basic function of police has always been to prevent crime. A primary means of doing so is by maintaining order.

If disorder is allowed to flourish, the subway system will inevitably decay, even in the face of the billions spent in recent years to restore it. Service will erode. The well-to-do will find alternatives, not just in the form of cabs and limousines, but by abandoning the city. The ultimate victims will be the working classes and the poor—bereft of options, but then even more vulnerable to the predations of hoodlums and thugs.

 

 

 
Saving the system from vagrants, criminals, and their ardent defenders will require modern police work at its best
City Journal Winter 1991.
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