What Works? Overcoming Fatalism by Fixing Broken Glass: New York City

Back in the 1980’s, when I was living in upstate New York and deciding where to go to college, New York City beckoned as an obvious choice: the schools, the libraries and bookstores, the Village.  I went down to Fordham for a campus visit.  The next day, I returned home, appalled.  The grounds were beautiful, but the neighborhood was so dangerous that security guards would not allow students to leave campus in groups smaller than 12.  Fordham was gated and patrolled like an embassy on enemy soil.  The streets a few blocks away looked like a war zone, and the subways surrounding it were filthy, subterranean toilets filled with more or less aggressive lunatics trying to catch your eye.

I know, I know: I was a wimp for not wanting to become one of those tough city denizens, Blondie-tough, the type who didn’t blink as they negotiated the human detritus piled up in the streets.  I was also a serious long-distance runner, and I couldn’t imagine living in a place where you needed to recruit 11 other people just in order to walk down the street.  And then, parks were off limits for runners at any hour of the day.  Even in the nicer parts of Manhattan, normal people went about their business only by studiously pretending they were not stepping over some zoned-out junkie passed out in a pool of vomit as they made their way from the subway to the street.

People prided themselves on surviving this, but it was not as if they had a choice, unless they had the choice I made, which was to live somewhere else.  Many people made that choice in the Eighties and Nineties, just as they had done in the Sixties and Seventies, fleeing the growing violence of the city.  Back in the 1940’s, my grandparents had made the same choice for the same reason: crime threatened their daughters’ safety.  If you had tons of money, you could live well in the city and insulate yourself and look down your nose at those lesser types fleeing to the suburbs, but for everyone else, living in the city was a matter of narrowing your horizons, watching your back, and lowering your standards to accommodate the chaos.

By the time New York City “hit bottom” in the late 1980’s, it was astonishing how much abuse the dispirited public could absorb.  The few times I traveled through the city in those years, I found Port Authority Station to be a claustrophobic Habitrail of crime.  Betraying surprise at the Hogarthian spectacle merely singled one out.  This passage from an academic study nicely captures the zeitgeist:

“Inside the bus station, people had sex, shot heroin, gave birth and died.”

Less picaresque were the city’s murder statistics: 2,262 dead in 1990.

The people who rescued New York City realized they would have to change the behavior of two entirely different subsets of the population: those who were causing the problems and a public who had trained themselves to silently submit to them.  Much has been written about the “Broken Windows” model of crime fighting, in which quality-of-life violations such as loitering and graffiti and toll-hopping are no longer tolerated, with the goal of raising community standards and entrapping chronic offenders.  I don’t know of any study that tracks the effect of Broken Windows enforcement on the law abiding, but I imagine their tolerance for social disorder must have dropped as the levels of disorder dropped around them.

Nowadays, despite displays of nostalgia in some circles, I doubt very many New Yorkers would tolerate a return to 2,000+ murders a year, or the spectacle of seeing a homeless schizophrenic women wash her privates in the next sink when they’ve taken the kids downtown to see Nutcracker Suite.

It could be said that New York City triumphed over crime simply because the people in charge decided to stop tolerating any more of it.  This seems like an obvious stance, one that any sane elected official would take, but it is not: it took generations of city leaders openly tolerating crime and anti-social behavior for New York City to crawl as far down as it did into the gutter.  Even during the bloody years of 1989 – 1993, many of these same people vehemently objected to any effort to raise the social bar on everyone’s behavior, arguing that criminals and drug addicts and homeless people are both incapable of changing and should not be told to change.  But despite these naysayers, the evidence keeps rolling in that the Broken Windows philosophy of policing did work and was responsible for New York City’s astonishing turn-around on crime.

Atlanta is not New York City: people in sprawling southern cities do not live heel-to-chin on top of each other, and crime is more dispersed as well.  It is therefore impossible to achieve the density of police presence that Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani were able to muster in the early 1990’s.  Nor, significantly, do a critical mass of residents use public transportation in Atlanta, whereas in New York, people from all social strata rely on public transportation, so Police Chief William Bratton was able to demonstrate to the public that cracking down on minor crimes in the subway could transform the city itself.

Still, there are lessons for Atlanta to learn from New York’s Broken Windows success.  The most important lesson might be that charismatic leadership firmly on the side of zero tolerance matters.  Broken Windows is often portrayed as a bottom-up approach because that is what officers are tasked to do.  But it actually requires a much higher level of coordination and involvement from police brass than ordinary policing.  And given the array of activists aligned against quality-of-life laws, it also requires a police force that knows that City Hall, and their own commanders, firmly have their backs.

Atlanta currently has none of these things.

As George Kelling, one of the main advocates of Broken Windows policing, writes in this article in City Journal, New York City’s crime turnaround also took tremendous cooperation between police and the mayor’s office, parks and public transportation officials, city planners, and especially, the courts.

Atlanta currently has none of these things.

In Atlanta, the district attorney is still talking about “understanding” gang members and excusing their crimes, and some judges in the Superior Court have not yet gotten the memo about actually punishing criminals for shooting people, let alone jumping turnstiles.

But Atlanta has one thing that New York City did not have in 1989, or even 1993. It has scores of citizens who are taking leadership roles in the fight against crime, who believe that technology and cooperation and their own efforts can turn the city around.  The public in Atlanta in 2009 is playing the role that a small band of law enforcement visionaries played in New York City twenty years ago.  They are approaching the crime problem with energy, good intentions, and open minds.  They are networking using new forms of communication, demanding zero tolerance for crime victimization, and livable streets, even as their leaders lag behind them.

Atlantans are not New Yorkers: they are not jaded.


Two recent articles on New York City’s crime turnaround:

How New York Became Safe: The Full Story, George L. Kelling

New York’s Indispensible Institution, Heather Mac Donald


4 thoughts on “What Works? Overcoming Fatalism by Fixing Broken Glass: New York City”

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