Just 20 years ago, New York City was racked with crime: murders, burglaries, drug deals, car thefts, thefts from cars. (Remember the signs in car windows advising no radio?) Unlike many cities’ crime problems, New York’s were not limited to a few inner-city neighborhoods that could be avoided. Bryant Park, in the heart of midtown and adjacent to the New York Public Library, was an open-air drug market; Grand Central Terminal, a gigantic flophouse; the Port Authority Bus Terminal, “a grim gauntlet for bus passengers dodging beggars, drunks, thieves, and destitute drug addicts,” as the New York Times put it in 1992. In July 1985, the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City published a study showing widespread fear of theft and assault in downtown Brooklyn, Fordham Road in the Bronx, and Jamaica Center in Queens. Riders abandoned the subway in droves, fearing assault from lunatics and gangs.

New York’s drop in crime during the 1990s was correspondingly astonishing—indeed, “one of the most remarkable stories in the history of urban crime,” according to University of California law professor Franklin Zimring. While other cities experienced major declines, none was as steep as New York’s. Most of the criminologists’ explanations for it—the economy, changing drug-use patterns, demographic changes—have not withstood scrutiny. Readers of City Journal will be familiar with the stronger argument that the New York Police Department’s adoption of quality-of-life policing and of such accountability measures as Compstat was behind the city’s crime drop.

Yet that explanation isn’t the whole story. Learning the rest is more than an academic exercise, for if we can understand fully what happened in New York, we not only can adapt it to other cities but can ensure that Gotham’s crime gains aren’t lost in today’s cash-strapped environment.

As New York suffered, an idea began to emerge that would one day restore the city. Nathan Glazer first gave it voice in a 1979 Public Interest article, “On Subway Graffiti in New York,” arguing that graffitists, other disorderly persons, and criminals “who rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers . . . are part of one world of uncontrollable predators.” For Glazer, a government’s inability to control even a minor crime like graffiti signaled to citizens that it certainly couldn’t handle more serious ones. Disorder, therefore, was creating a crisis that threatened all segments of urban life. In 1982, James Q. Wilson and I elaborated on this idea, linking disorder to serious crime in an Atlantic story called “Broken Windows” (see below).

Yet it wasn’t just intellectuals who were starting to study disorder and minor crimes. Policymakers like Deputy Mayor Herb Sturz and private-sector leaders like Gerald Schoenfeld, longtime chairman of the Shubert Organization, believed that disorderly conditions—aggressive panhandling, prostitution, scams, drugs—threatened the economy of Times Square. Under Sturz’s leadership, and with money from the Fund for the City of New York, the NYPD developed Operation Crossroads in the late 1970s. The project focused on minor offenses in the Times Square area; urged police to develop high-visibility, low-arrest tactics; and attempted to measure police performance by counting instances of disorderly behavior.

Despite some initial success, Operation Crossroads was ultimately aborted, and the NYPD returned to business as usual. Later, the police employed similar tactics in Bryant Park after Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis threatened to close it; again they met with early success, but again they eventually abandoned the attempt.

As soon became clear, sporadic police programs weren’t enough. Only when a wide range of agencies and institutions began to work on restoring public order did real progress begin. In 1980, a second attempt to fix Bryant Park took off: the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, headed by Dan Biederman, used environmental design, maintenance, private security, and other approaches inspired by the success of Rockefeller Center. Similarly, in 1988, the Grand Central Partnership (also led by Biederman) began reducing disorder in the 75 blocks surrounding Grand Central by employing private security and hiring the homeless to clean the streets. Thirty-two more Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) were developing similar approaches in New York.

Public transportation was another area where public order became a priority. In 1984, David Gunn, president of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), began a five-year program to eradicate graffiti from subway trains. Then, in 1989, Robert Kiley, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, asked the transit police (then located within the NYCTA) to focus on minor offenses; a year later, he hired as its chief William Bratton, who immediately zeroed in on disorder, especially fare beating. And in the early nineties, the NYCTA adopted similar policing methods for Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

Neighborhood organizations, too, began demanding that order be restored—even the local community board in the Tompkins Square Park area, which had once been quite tolerant of disorderly behavior. And the judiciary branch got involved as well, with the 1993 opening of the Midtown Community Court, which swiftly handles those who commit minor offenses.

Tompkins Square Park, once overrun by drug addicts and the homeless, is now a family-friendly haven anchoring the East Village. (LES STONE/SYGMA/CORBIS)
Tompkins Square Park, once overrun by drug addicts and the homeless, is now a family-friendly haven anchoring the East Village. (LES STONE/SYGMA/CORBIS)

In sum, a diverse set of organizations in the city—pursuing their own interests and using various tactics and programs—all began trying to restore order to their domains. Further, in contrast with early sporadic efforts like Operation Crossroads, these attempts were implemented aggressively and persistently. Biederman, for example, worked on Bryant Park for 12 years. When Kiley was struggling to restore order in the subway, he had to withstand pressure from powerful opponents: the New York Civil Liberties Union, the mayor’s office (which had suggested bringing portable kitchens and showers into the subway for the homeless), the police commissioner, and the transit police. In fact, it was after the transit cops resisted Operation Enforcement, Kiley’s first effort to restore order, that he hired Bratton.

By the early 1990s, these highly visible successes, especially in the subway, had begun to express themselves politically. Better than any other politician, Rudy Giuliani understood the pent-up demand for public order and built his successful 1993 run for mayor on quality-of-life themes. Once in office, he appointed Bratton, who had orchestrated the subway success and understood the importance of order maintenance, as New York’s police commissioner.

Under Bratton, the NYPD brought enormous capacities to bear on the city’s crime problem—particularly Compstat, its tactical planning and accountability system, which identified where crimes were occurring and held local commanders responsible for their areas. Giuliani and Bratton also gave the force’s members a clear vision of the “business” of the NYPD and how their activities contributed to it. In short, a theory previously advocated largely by elites filtered down to—and inspired—line police officers, who had constituted a largely ignored and underused capacity.

Once the NYPD joined the effort, the order-maintenance movement expanded even more. Port Authority, initially skeptical about Kiley’s approach in the subway and Grand Central and Penn Stations, took similar action to restore order; the Midtown Community Court spawned the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization that helped develop the Red Hook Community Court in 1998; and BIDs increased from 33 in 1989 to 61 in 2008.

Clearly, Giuliani and Bratton were heroes in reclaiming public spaces. But Glazer, Sturz, Gunn, Kiley, Biederman, and others were stalwarts as well. They set the stage for what was to follow. Current mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly also deserve kudos; rather than overturning the Bratton/Giuliani innovations and going their own way—as new administrators are wont to do—they adopted, refined, and strengthened them.

As New York confronts a fiscal crisis, its leaders need to remember that the city owes its crime decline to a broad range of public and private agencies. Maintaining the NYPD’s commitment to its proven crime-fighting methods is crucial, of course. But so is the broader citywide emphasis on public order.

The Mounting Evidence That Broken Windows Works

Twenty-seven years ago, James Q. Wilson and I published “Broken Windows” in The Atlantic, proposing that untended disorder and minor offenses gave rise to serious crime and urban decay. We also hypothesized that government and community action to restore order might reduce crime. Not surprisingly, responses to the article were mixed. The Justice Department’s research arm, the National Institute of Justice, prepared to fund a major experiment to study the links between disorder and serious crime, but senior officials nixed it as too controversial. Police were sympathetic to the Broken Windows theory but also wary, since they felt overwhelmed by 911 calls already and didn’t relish the prospect of still more work. And the article got little attention in the academy.

But after New York City’s astonishing crime drop in the nineties—much of which Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton credited to the Broken Windows approach—a firestorm of academic criticism erupted, claiming that Broken Windows was racist, it harassed and criminalized the poor, it constituted cultural imperialism, it amounted to overzealous “zero tolerance,” and so on. Moreover, the crime drop had nothing to do with Broken Windows (or any other police action); it was the result of changes in the economy or other broad social trends. Some criminologists attacked Broken Windows to advance their careers, realizing that variations on the theme of “Broken Windows disproved” were an effective way to call attention to their own work. But for most, ideology was at stake. Not only did the effectiveness of Broken Windows undermine the decades-long assumption that only large-scale social and economic change could prevent crime; it also meant that breakthroughs in crime prevention could come from the Right—anathema to criminologists, most of whom occupied the far Left.

Still, critics of Broken Windows had one good point: New York provided, at most, anecdotal and correlational evidence of a relationship between disorder and crime. There were very few experimental studies—the most certain method of establishing causality—showing that the first caused the second.

But that changed last year, when University of Groningen researcher Kees Keizer and his colleagues published a paper in Science. In six experiments in the Netherlands, Keizer observed and compared the behavior of people under artificial conditions of order and disorder. Invariably, he found that disorderly conditions encouraged further and more serious levels of disorderly behavior. In one experiment, for example, Keizer placed an envelope conspicuously containing five euros in a mailbox. When the mailbox was clean, 13 percent of people who passed it stole the money; when it was covered with graffiti, 27 percent took it.

Also in 2008, Harvard University researcher Anthony A. Braga and his colleagues published the results of a complex set of field experiments in Criminology. Researchers and police identified small neighborhoods in Lowell, Massachusetts, and randomly assigned them to experimental and control conditions. In each of the experimental areas—where police were maintaining order, Broken Windows–style—crime dropped more sharply than in the control areas and, moreover, did not simply move to adjacent neighborhoods. The article also built on an earlier experiment, with the same results, that Braga had conducted in Jersey City a decade earlier.

While these studies do not settle, once and for all, the question of the relationship between disorder and serious crime, they do provide a substantial body of experimental evidence that fixing broken windows ought to be an integral part of any community’s response to crime. In fact, it’s hard to think of a policy option for fixing a major social problem that is as strongly supported—by both experience and solid research—as is Broken Windows.

—George L. Kelling

Compstatting the Fire Department

This year, the New York City Fire Department will spend more than most state public-safety agencies: its 2009 executive budget provides for operating expenses of $1.5 billion and capital commitments of $224.7 million. To date, the public has continued to support generous funding—understandably: the FDNY has earned its reputation as one of the city’s outstanding public agencies. But the department could do even better. While it fights fires with great success, bureaucratic mismanagement has resulted in serious problems in two other areas: controlling costs and managing risks.

The FDNY’s expenditures don’t receive as much oversight as do state budgets, which are managed by professionals and subject to scrutiny by various local, state, federal, and independent entities. The department’s waste of tens of millions of dollars in overtime pay, among various embarrassing and costly mistakes, makes clear that it deeply needs accountability and performance measurement. Especially in a time of lean budgets, the city deserves a better accounting for its investment. Better risk-management practices, meanwhile, might have prevented some recent FDNY tragedies. The 2001 Father’s Day fire took the lives of three outstanding men and was started by an explosion in a building long overdue for inspection. Inspection failures were at least partly to blame for the deaths of two firefighters in the Deutsche Bank fire of 2008 as well.

One way to address both problems would be to reinstitute an important tool: a fire-department version of the NYPD’s Compstat system. Compstat, developed in the early nineties, issues weekly reports on crime statistics and trends. Local commanders also receive reports on department statistics, such as overtime, accidents, sick leave, and injuries. They are held accountable for meeting crime-reduction objectives and for managing their resources effectively.

In early 2001, the FDNY launched its own version of Compstat, called FireMARC (Management Appraisal, Review, and Comparisons). The program was designed to improve communication and coordination among various bureaus in the organization. As in Compstat, information databases were coupled with a geographic mapping system that produced graphic displays, detailed reports, and trend analyses. These included a variety of reports on overtime, sick leave, injuries, accidents, and apparatus downtime. The system also assigned priorities for building inspections.

FireMARC was still being integrated in June 2001, when the Father’s Day fire took place. A few months later, of course, the department was devastated by the 9/11 attacks, and FireMARC understandably took a backseat in the aftermath. But even once some sense of normality had returned, the system never became fully realized, and it was abandoned in 2002. It’s time the FDNY gave it another look.

—Tom Von Essen


Top Photo: andykazie/iStock


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