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.
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.
“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).
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