When I talk about law enforcement on both sides of the Atlantic, I recall a quote from the late great cop and former First Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD, John Timoney: “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, and they who study Police, know that we do not study history.”
It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart: Guided by the nine principles of Sir Robert Peel, the father of the Metropolitan Police Service, I helped clean up the crime-ridden streets of New York City in the 1990s. For Peel it was clear that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” This was an ethos I would soon apply to my work.
As a Boston Police Department supervisor who implemented the city’s first Neighborhood Policing initiative, I quickly learned that even as serious crime increased, citizen concerns focused on low-level offenses (so-called victimless crimes) such as public drinking, graffiti, disorderly conduct, fare evasion, prostitution and public urination – disorder they witnessed every day. This is where we, the police, have focused much of our efforts on behalf of the public.
In 1982, James Q Wilson and my great colleague and mentor George Kelling gave what we were doing in Boston a name: the Broken Windows theory was born. The duo’s research, announced 150 years after Sir Robert Peel flooded London with officers in blue uniforms, suggested that the presence of police, who were free to determine the extent of enforcement at their discretion, was the best determinant factor for a meaningful reduction in crime.
It was on the New York City subway in 1990, when I had the privilege of leading the then separate Transit Police Department, that the Broken Windows Theory was formally put to the test. The results proved what Sir Robert knew to be true a century and a half ago. Transit Police Officers were given the opportunity to be proactive in tackling lawlessness by tackling issues such as fare gougers, damaging trains with graffiti, cheating and homelessness.
To further underline the success of Broken Windows, we soon discovered that serious criminals were also committing minor crimes. It turns out that those carrying weapons and wanted on warrants rarely bothered to pay the fare. By arresting those who skip the turnstiles, we can ensure that these serious criminals no longer pose a threat to passengers.
The metro became much safer, and just as importantly: three and a half million travelers felt safer. Over a three-year period from 1990 to 1993, crime in the metro fell 35.9 percent. In the city as a whole, where enforcement of quality of life was less strict, it fell by only 17.9 percent – a percentage that has increased due to our successful reform of the transit police.
Just a few years later, our successful policing techniques were implemented citywide after I was selected as Commissioner of the NYPD. Broken Windows combined with CompStat (an award-winning crime control and management accountability system we created in the NYPD) had a huge impact, reducing crime in New York City by 46.1 percent between 1990 and 1996.
Our crime reduction miracle was recognized around the world. In 1995, then Home Secretary Jack Straw visited New York City to learn how we were winning the war on crime and disorder. The irony was not lost on us that the foundation of our success came from his fellow Englishman, Sir Robert.
Although Straw’s visit to New York City was an eye-opener, Britain took a different approach to controlling antisocial behavior: ‘Zero Tolerance’. As I told the UK Home Affairs Committee in 2011, I would not support an attempt at zero tolerance in any city, in any country in the world. It is simply not feasible. Zero Tolerance Policing, which is often wrongly compared to Broken Windows Policing, is not something we practice, support, or endorse, beyond zero tolerance for police corruption. You can’t completely eliminate crime or social disorder, but you can significantly reduce it, as we’ve proven in cities across America.
As time passed, crime rates in New York City continued to decline. In 2014, I was given another opportunity to make a difference for New Yorkers as my second term as NYPD Commissioner began. I tightened the practice and brought violent crime and disorder to an all-time low.
Sir Robert Peel still has lessons to teach us. His second principle – that “the ability of the police to carry out their duties is dependent on public approval of police conduct” – This is especially true in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Boosted by a wave of anti-police sentiment, many US cities began decriminalizing quality-of-life crimes such as fare evasion and public urination, with this process was often driven by ideologically motivated prosecutors. The outcome was predictable to anyone who knew history: the lawlessness that had been driven from our streets and subways returned, and with it higher violent crime rates.
While cities like New York and London are beginning to come to grips with the violent crime issues they experienced after the Covid-19 pandemic, citizens still feel unsafe. The statistics may tell the public that crime is decreasing, but if people don’t feel better about their neighborhood because they still experience unaddressed disorder, they won’t believe it.
Think of weeds in a garden as a symbol of social disorder. If you don’t weed a garden, it will be overrun and destroyed. If you don’t address so-called minor crimes, they too will increase, provoking fear and despair. By focusing only on major crimes and ignoring minor ones, political leaders have chosen to prune the weeds rather than uproot them.
Any policing strategy that does not tackle disorder and serious crime at the same time is doomed to failure. Everything old is new again. To clean up our streets and restore trust in police, we need look no further than the past.
Bill Bratton, CBE is the former two-term NYPD Police Commissioner, Chief of the LAPD, Boston Police Commissioner, and Chief of the New York City Transit Police
Scott Glick is a retired NYPD detective who patrolled northern Manhattan and most recently worked in the police commissioner’s office and the department’s public information bureau.
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