How New York Became Safe: The Full Story
A citywide effort, involving many agencies and institutions, helped restore order.
Just 25 years ago, New York City was racked with crime: murders, burglaries, drug
deals, car thefts, thefts from cars. (Remember the signs in car windows advising no
radio?) Unlike many cities’ crime problems, New York’s were not limited to a few innercity
neighborhoods that could be avoided. Bryant Park, in the heart of midtown and
adjacent to the New York Public Library, was an open-air drug market; Grand Central
Terminal, a gigantic flophouse; the Port Authority Bus Terminal, “a grim gauntlet for bus
passengers dodging beggars, drunks, thieves, and destitute drug addicts,” as the New
York Times put it in 1992. In July 1985, the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City
published a study showing widespread fear of theft and assault in downtown Brooklyn,
Fordham Road in the Bronx, and Jamaica Center in Queens. Riders abandoned the
subway in droves, fearing assault from lunatics and gangs.
New York’s drop in crime during the 1990s was correspondingly astonishing—indeed,
“one of the most remarkable stories in the history of urban crime,” according to
University of California law professor Franklin Zimring. While other cities experienced
major declines, none was as steep as New York’s. Most of the criminologists’
explanations for it—the economy, changing drug-use patterns, demographic changes—
have not withstood scrutiny. Readers of City Journal will be familiar with the stronger
argument that the New York Police Department’s adoption of quality-of-life policing and
of such accountability measures as Compstat was behind the city’s crime drop.
Yet that explanation isn’t the whole story. Learning the rest is more than an academic
exercise, for if we can understand fully what happened in New York, we not only can
adapt it to other cities but can ensure that Gotham’s crime gains aren’t lost in today’s
As New York suffered, an idea began to emerge that would one day restore the city.
Nathan Glazer first gave it voice in a 1979 Public Interest article, “On Subway Graffiti in
New York,” arguing that graffitists, other disorderly persons, and criminals “who rob,
rape, assault, and murder passengers . . . are part of one world of uncontrollable
predators.” For Glazer, a government’s inability to control even a minor crime like
graffiti signaled to citizens that it certainly couldn’t handle more serious ones. Disorder,
therefore, was creating a crisis that threatened all segments of urban life. In 1982, James
Q. Wilson and I elaborated on this idea, linking disorder to serious crime in an Atlantic
story called “Broken Windows” (see below).
Yet it wasn’t just intellectuals who were starting to study disorder and minor crimes.
Policymakers like Deputy Mayor Herb Sturz and private-sector leaders like Gerald
Schoenfeld, longtime chairman of the Shubert Organization, believed that disorderly
conditions—aggressive panhandling, prostitution, scams, drugs—threatened the
economy of Times Square. Under Sturz’s leadership, and with money from the Fund for
the City of New York, the NYPD developed Operation Crossroads in the late 1970s. The
project focused on minor offenses in the Times Square area; urged police to develop
high-visibility, low-arrest tactics; and attempted to measure police performance by
counting instances of disorderly behavior.
Despite some initial success, Operation Crossroads was ultimately aborted, and the
NYPD returned to business as usual. Later, the police employed similar tactics in Bryant
Park after Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis threatened to close it; again they met with
early success, but again they eventually abandoned the attempt.
As soon became clear, sporadic police programs weren’t enough. Only when a wide
range of agencies and institutions began to work on restoring public order did real
progress begin. In 1980, a second attempt to fix Bryant Park took off: the Bryant Park
Restoration Corporation, headed by Dan Biederman, used environmental design,
maintenance, private security, and other approaches inspired by the success of
Rockefeller Center. Similarly, in 1988, the Grand Central Partnership (also led by
Biederman) began reducing disorder in the 75 blocks surrounding Grand Central by
employing private security and hiring the homeless to clean the streets. Thirty-two more
Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) were developing similar approaches in New
Public transportation was another area where public order became a priority. In 1984,
David Gunn, president of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), began a fiveyear
program to eradicate graffiti from subway trains. Then, in 1989, Robert Kiley,
chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, asked the transit
police (then located within the NYCTA) to focus on minor offenses; a year later, he hired
as its chief William Bratton, who immediately zeroed in on disorder, especially fare
beating. And in the early nineties, the NYCTA adopted similar policing methods for Penn
Station and Grand Central Terminal.
Neighborhood organizations, too, began demanding that order be restored
—even the local community board in the Tompkins Square Park area, which had once been quite tolerant of disorderly behavior. And the judiciary branch got involved as well, with the 1993 opening of the Midtown Community Court, which swiftly handles those who commit minor offenses.
In sum, a diverse set of organizations in the city—pursuing their own interests and using
various tactics and programs—all began trying to restore order to their domains.
Further, in contrast with early sporadic efforts like Operation Crossroads, these attempts
were implemented aggressively and persistently. Biederman, for example, worked on
Bryant Park for 12 years. When Kiley was struggling to restore order in the subway, he
had to withstand pressure from powerful opponents: the New York Civil Liberties Union,
the mayor’s office (which had suggested bringing portable kitchens and showers into the
subway for the homeless), the police commissioner, and the transit police. In fact, it was
after the transit cops resisted Operation Enforcement, Kiley’s first effort to restore order,
that he hired Bratton.
By the early 1990s, these highly visible successes, especially in the subway, had begun to
express themselves politically. Better than any other politician, Rudy Giuliani
understood the pent-up demand for public order and built his successful 1993 run for
mayor on quality-of-life themes. Once in office, he appointed Bratton, who had
orchestrated the subway success and understood the importance of order maintenance,
as New York’s police commissioner.
Under Bratton, the NYPD brought enormous capacities to bear on the city’s crime
problem—particularly Compstat, its tactical planning and accountability system, which
identified where crimes were occurring and held local commanders responsible for their
areas. Giuliani and Bratton also gave the force’s members a clear vision of the “business”
of the NYPD and how their activities contributed to it. In short, a theory previously
advocated largely by elites filtered down to—and inspired—line police officers, who had
constituted a largely ignored and underused capacity.
Once the NYPD joined the effort, the order-maintenance movement expanded even
more. Port Authority, initially skeptical about Kiley’s approach in the subway and Grand
Central and Penn Stations, took similar action to restore order; the Midtown Community
Court spawned the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization that helped
develop the Red Hook Community Court in 1998; and BIDs increased from 33 in 1989 to
61 in 2008.
Clearly, Giuliani and Bratton were heroes in reclaiming public spaces. But Glazer, Sturz,
Gunn, Kiley, Biederman, and others were stalwarts as well. They set the stage for what
was to follow. Current mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly
also deserve kudos; rather than overturning the Bratton/Giuliani innovations and going
their own way—as new administrators are wont to do—they adopted, refined, and
As New York confronts a fiscal crisis, its leaders need to remember that the city owes its
crime decline to a broad range of public and private agencies. Maintaining the NYPD’s
commitment to its proven crime-fighting methods is crucial, of course. But so is the
broader citywide emphasis on public order.
George L. Kelling is a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University
in Newark and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
The Mounting Evidence That Broken Windows Works
Thirty years ago, James Q. Wilson and I published “Broken Windows” in The
Atlantic, proposing that untended disorder and minor offenses gave rise to serious crime
and urban decay. We also hypothesized that government and community action to
restore order might reduce crime. Not surprisingly, responses to the article were mixed.
The Justice Department’s research arm, the National Institute of Justice, prepared to
fund a major experiment to study the links between disorder and serious crime, but
senior officials nixed it as too controversial. Police were sympathetic to the Broken
Windows theory but also wary, since they felt overwhelmed by 911 calls already and
didn’t relish the prospect of still more work. And the article got little attention in the
But after New York City’s astonishing crime drop in the nineties—much of which Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton credited to the Broken
Windows approach—a firestorm of academic criticism erupted, claiming that Broken
Windows was racist, it harassed and criminalized the poor, it constituted cultural
imperialism, it amounted to overzealous “zero tolerance,” and so on. Moreover, the
crime drop had nothing to do with Broken Windows (or any other police action); it was
the result of changes in the economy or other broad social trends. Some criminologists
attacked Broken Windows to advance their careers, realizing that variations on the
theme of “Broken Windows disproved” were an effective way to call attention to their
own work. But for most, ideology was at stake. Not only did the effectiveness of Broken
Windows undermine the decades-long assumption that only large-scale social and
economic change could prevent crime; it also meant that breakthroughs in crime
prevention could come from the Right—anathema to criminologists, most of whom
occupied the far Left.
Still, critics of Broken Windows had one good point: New York provided, at most,
anecdotal and correlational evidence of a relationship between disorder and crime. There
were very few experimental studies—the most certain method of establishing causality—
showing that the first caused the second.
But that changed last year, when University of Groningen researcher Kees Keizer and his
colleagues published a paper in Science. In six experiments in the Netherlands, Keizer
observed and compared the behavior of people under artificial conditions of order and
disorder. Invariably, he found that disorderly conditions encouraged further and more
serious levels of disorderly behavior. In one experiment, for example, Keizer placed an
envelope conspicuously containing five euros in a mailbox. When the mailbox was clean,
13 percent of people who passed it stole the money; when it was covered with graffiti, 27
percent took it.
Also in 2008, Harvard University researcher Anthony A. Braga and his colleagues
published the results of a complex set of field experiments in Criminology. Researchers
and police identified small neighborhoods in Lowell, Massachusetts, and randomly
assigned them to experimental and control conditions. In each of the experimental
areas—where police were maintaining order, Broken Windows–style—crime dropped
more sharply than in the control areas and, moreover, did not simply move to adjacent
neighborhoods. The article also built on an earlier experiment, with the same results,
that Braga had conducted in Jersey City a decade earlier.
While these studies do not settle, once and for all, the question of the relationship
between disorder and serious crime, they do provide a substantial body of experimental
evidence that fixing broken windows ought to be an integral part of any community’s
response to crime. In fact, it’s hard to think of a policy option for fixing a major social
problem that is as strongly supported—by both experience and solid research—as is
—George L. Kelling
Compstatting the Fire Department
In 2009, the New York City Fire Department will spend more than most state publicsafety
agencies: its 2009 executive budget provides for operating expenses of $1.5 billion
and capital commitments of $224.7 million. To date, the public has continued to support
generous funding—understandably: the FDNY has earned its reputation as one of the
city’s outstanding public agencies. But the department could do even better. While it
fights fires with great success, bureaucratic mismanagement has resulted in serious
problems in two other areas: controlling costs and managing risks.
The FDNY’s expenditures don’t receive as much oversight as do state budgets, which are
managed by professionals and subject to scrutiny by various local, state, federal, and
independent entities. The department’s waste of tens of millions of dollars in overtime
pay, among various embarrassing and costly mistakes, makes clear that it deeply needs
accountability and performance measurement. Especially in a time of lean budgets, the
city deserves a better accounting for its investment. Better risk-management practices,
meanwhile, might have prevented some recent FDNY tragedies. The 2001 Father’s Day
fire took the lives of three outstanding men and was started by an explosion in a building
long overdue for inspection. Inspection failures were at least partly to blame for the
deaths of two firefighters in the Deutsche Bank fire of 2008 as well.
One way to address both problems would be to reinstitute an important tool: a firedepartment
version of the NYPD’s Compstat system. Compstat, developed in the early
nineties, issues weekly reports on crime statistics and trends. Local commanders also
receive reports on department statistics, such as overtime, accidents, sick leave, and
injuries. They are held accountable for meeting crime-reduction objectives and for
managing their resources effectively.
In early 2001, the FDNY launched its own version of Compstat, called FireMARC
(Management Appraisal, Review, and Comparisons). The program was designed to
improve communication and coordination among various bureaus in the organization.
As in Compstat, information databases were coupled with a geographic mapping system
that produced graphic displays, detailed reports, and trend analyses. These included a
variety of reports on overtime, sick leave, injuries, accidents, and apparatus downtime.
The system also assigned priorities for building inspections.
FireMARC was still being integrated in June 2001, when the Father’s Day fire took place.
A few months later, of course, the department was devastated by the 9/11 attacks, and
FireMARC understandably took a backseat in the aftermath. But even once some sense
of normality had returned, the system never became fully realized, and it was abandoned
in 2002. It’s time the FDNY gave it another look.
—Tom Von Essen