In the mid 1980s, New York had a crime problem. While they weren’t the only major city that was seemingly losing the crime battle, they took a very unique approach in trying to solve it. What did they do to solve a crime epidemic? They started with grafitti on the subway!

In 1985, the New York City Transit Authority was at a crossroads. The system was aging and crime on subways was ramped. The Transit Authority hired a new director, David Gunn, to solve the problem. Gunn inherited a list of complex issues such as budgets, crime on subways, an aging system, management structure, etc. Gunn would lead a multi-billon dollar effort to rebuild this system and many experts were telling him to start with system reliability and violent crimes. Instead, he ignored common advice and picked an unusual tack for improvement to turn around this seemingly broken system-graffiti. He set the goal to eliminate graffiti and vandalism from the subway system. He set out, car-by-car and train-by-train to retake the subway system. He began with the number-7 train that connects Queens to mid-town Manhattan, taking the train out of service and removing all vandalism and graffiti. He established a rule that once a car was cleaned and put back into service any new graffiti would be removed immediately. Cleaning stations were established and as a train finished its run, it would be pulled into the cleaning station and any new grafitti removed. If it could not be removed, the train would be pulled from service until all signs of the vandalism were gone. This effort, which began in 1985, took until 1990.

In 1990, the Transit Authority named William Bratton to head the Transit Authority Police. In this role, Bratton, a military veteran and life long law enforcement officer took another unique position in solving the crime problem. With felonies and violent crimes on the subway system at record levels, Bratton did not target subway drug use or violent offenders. Instead, Bratton defied experts and set a goal to cracking down on fare beating. You know, fare beaters are those who jump over the turn-styles to save the $1.25 subway fare.

Bratton wanted to put an end to the 170,000 people who were entering the system without paying. He began to set up undercover teams who worked to catch fare beaters. Once nabbed, these fare beaters were cuffed and placed in a holding area within the subway terminal. It was a location that everyone entering and leaving the subway could see. Once the holding cell was full, all detained would be hauled to jail, booked and criminal background checks performed. Like Gunn with grafitti, Bratton wanted to send a message to fare beaters that this behavior would not longer be tolerated.

The broken windows theory was articlulated by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. Their theory, dealing with crime, said that if a building has a broken window that goes unrepaired that vandals will see it hasn’t been repaired, understand that no one cares, and be inclinded to break more windows. This will quickly lead to a break in of the building which will lead to more crimes both in that building and the surounding areas. Malcolm Gladwell in his enlightening book entitled “The Tipping Point.”

The book is based on an article titled "Broken Windows" by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The title comes from the following example:

"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book's authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. (This strategy can be immediately applied to workplace safety and health problems.) Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.

“The graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system,” Gunn later said. When you look at the process of rebuilding the system and moral, you had to win the battle of graffiti. The idea was to communicate a very clear message to vandals.

Bratton thought fare beating was a tipping point, a signal or gate that led to more violent crimes. Once one or two other people were far beating, then others would do it thinking, if they aren’t paying, then I’m not going to pay either. 1 out of 7 arrested for fare beating had a warrant. One out of 20 were carrying an illegal weapon.

The theory thus makes two major claims: that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, and that major crime will, as a result, be prevented.

Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner Howard Safir also adopted the strategy more widely in New York City after Giuliani's election in 1993, under the rubrics of "zero tolerance" and "quality of life".

Thus, Giuliani's "zero tolerance" roll out was part of an interlocking set of wider reforms, crucial parts of which had been underway since 1985. Giuliani had the police even more strictly enforce the law against subway fare evasion, and stopped public drinkers, urinators, and the "squeegee men" who had been wiping windshields of stopped cars and demanding payment. Rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly, and continued to drop for the following ten years (see: the 2001 study of crime trends in New York by George Kelling and William Sousa).

Matt Forck, CSP & JLW is known as “THE Safety Ambassador” for positive, powerful and results oriented safety presentations and keynote addresses delivered throughout the United States. Log onto to learn more about Matt or find many free resources for safety professionals on the website. His latest book is, “Tailgate-101 Proven Stories to Begin Each Job Strong and Finish Safe!”