If You Want to Cut Down on Crime, Sweat the Small Stuff | Opinion

When it comes to New York City's crime reduction miracle that began in the early 1990s, some people need a history lesson.

That lesson begins in the 1960s when crime started to rise until it finally peaked in the 1990s. By 1990, New York City would see someone killed every few hours, culminating in 2,245 murders that year.

The city seemed lost, and having to ride the subway system that keeps it alive drove fear into the hearts of straphangers. It's a situation that may seem familiar to many of the city's residents today.

Many thought the situation was hopeless, but these doomsayers were proven wrong.

How was it done? There were a great many factors: dedicated cops, supportive communities, and a criminological theory that came to be called "Broken Windows."

Broken Windows
A bullet hole is seen in the glass entrance door of the Mag.Pi clothing store in Cedar Glen, near Lake Arrowhead, California, on Aug. 21. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

For more than five decades, I have emulated Sir Robert Peel's nine principles of policing, including his strong belief that "the police are the public and the public are the police." His first principle when he created London's Metropolitan Police in 1829 was "The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime AND disorder." With this in mind, in the mid-1970s, as a Boston Police supervisor, I quickly learned that even as serious crime rose, communities were focused more on low-level offenses like public drinking, prostitution, and public urination—disorder that they witnessed every day. This is where we focused many of our efforts on behalf of the public.

In 1982, James Q. Wilson and my great colleague and mentor George Kelling gave what I was doing a name when they introduced Broken Windows. Their theory was that stopping the little things was the key to preventing big things. George, in particular, based the concept on real-world experience and field work, including in Boston. He walked the beat with cops, spoke to neighbors, and immersed himself in the communities where disorder and crime were most prevalent. He saw firsthand that what residents care about, even more than serious crime, is their quality of life.

They say, "the proof is in the pudding," and New York City's subways in 1990, when I was privileged to lead the then-separate Transit Police Department, was the proving ground of Broken Windows. The Transit Police officers were allowed to use their discretion and be proactive in addressing lawlessness by going after problems like fare beaters, graffiti, panhandling, and homelessness. To further drive home the success of Broken Windows, we also quickly learned that serious criminals committed petty crimes, too. As it turns out muggers, people who carry weapons, or are wanted on warrants tend not to pay the fare. And after that fare evasion arrest, these criminals are no longer riding the trains posing a threat to riders.

The subway became safer—much safer in fact. Over a three-year period from 1990 to 1993, subway crime fell by 35.9 percent. In the city as a whole—where quality-of-life enforcement was less rigorous—crime fell only 17.9 percent, and that number included the success of the Transit Police.

In 1994, when I became the NYPD commissioner, we took our ideas from the Transit Police and put them to work on the streets—block by block. Alongside what I refer to as the dream team of policing—my leadership team—we enhanced Broken Windows with an accountability system called CompStat to deal with more serious crime. We were focusing on crime AND disorder simultaneously.

New Yorkers wanted their city back, and the police were ready to deliver it. Broken Windows and then CompStat made their first, dramatic impact from 1990 to 1996, a time when New York City's overall crime fell 46.1 percent.

Over the next 20 years, as Broken Windows was continued, New York City's crime continued to decrease. During my second tenure as the city's police commissioner, beginning in 2014, we honed the practice, driving crime and disorder down to historic lows.

As always, there are detractors who twist and contort Broken Windows. It has been related to Stop, Question, and Frisk by some who not only fail to study history, but clearly have never attended a community meeting or spoken to the cops walking the beat. I know firsthand that George Kelling constantly did both. Stop, Question, and Frisk requires only reasonable suspicion. Broken Windows requires probable cause, where the officer witnesses the offense or has witnesses to the offense. They are very different practices.

Beginning in 2019, a radical City Council and some of the city's district attorneys began to prove the worth of Broken Windows in an unfortunate and very different way. They started to decriminalize many quality-of-life offenses like fare evasion and public urination. District attorneys now all too often refuse to prosecute "low level" offenses. The outcome was predictable if you know the history.

The lawlessness that was driven off of our streets and subways has returned, and New Yorkers in every neighborhood are experiencing higher crime and disorder. What took decades to achieve by police and community working together is being erased in just a few short years. It was compounded by state criminal reform efforts that resulted in an explosion of minor crimes such as shop lifting and dramatic increases in youth crime.

New York City has now proven twice that Broken Windows works. We have walked the streets when it is practiced, and more recently when it is not. We much prefer the safety of the former over the latter. We can only hope the vast majority of voters agree.

Bill Bratton is executive chairman of Risk Advisory at Teneo. He is the former two-time police commissioner of the NYPD, chief of the LAPD, police commissioner of Boston, and chief of the New York City Transit Police.

Scott Glick is president of Glick Strategy, Inc. He is a retired NYPD first grade detective, who patrolled northern Manhattan and most recently worked in the office of the police commissioner and the department's public information office.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
newsbreaking nwesnewsnewsseoseogamesnewsmedicalgamesnewsnewsgamesnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewshealthnewsgamesnewsnewsnewsseogameshealthgameshealthnewsgamesgamesnewsseonewsnewsnewsnewshealthgamesgamesgamesgamesnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsnewsgamesnewsgamesgamesseogamesgamesseogamesgamesgamesseohealthgamesgamesgamesgamesmovie