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Can You Believe the New York Miracle?


Crime measurement, like crime-fighting, has been a shaky business for years. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was customary for municipal officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York, among other cities, to grossly underreport their crime statistics. And the habit was hard to break; increased honesty, after all, could easily be mistaken for increased crime. It could be, and, according to Above the Law, David Burnham’s illuminating study of the US Department of Justice, eventually it was. With the advent of 911 emergency telephone systems, in the late Sixties and the Seventies, the act of reporting became easier for the public and the act of suppressing statistics harder for the police—and crime soared. While some of the growth was undoubtedly real, some, Burnham suggests, was not.1 Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, our self-appointed national crime scorekeeper, acknowledged the potential for confusion; that is, the functionaries who published the Bureau’s uniform crime reports acknowledged it. Meanwhile, the FBI’s leaders, beginning with J. Edgar Hoover, eagerly promoted the idea of a terrifying increase in crime. Like the CIA’s inflated estimates of Soviet military might, it was good for business.

Even now, about half the victims of crime don’t bother to report it, and the police, too, retain some discretion about what gets counted, and how. In New York City, where the crime rate is said to have dropped by more than 40 percent over the last three years—“the New York Miracle,” it has been called—there have been sporadic disclosures of precinct or borough-level police commanders leaning on subordinates to downgrade robberies to larcenies or felonious to simple assaults. But suspicions of large-scale error or fraud run aground on the fact that murders and shootings, which have dropped the most (by about 50 percent each), are, of all crimes, the least manipulable. The annual tally of murders in New York City declined from 1,927, in 1993, to 986, in 1996; of shootings, from 5,862 to 2,930.2 You could fill Carnegie Hall, New York’s former Police Commissioner, William Bratton, liked to say (when the decrease was less pronounced), with people who would be dead if homicides had remained at their former levels. They would fill the Ziegfeld Theater now, and it would take Radio City Music Hall to accommodate the lucky souls who, by the same logic, have been spared bullet wounds. (Of course, finding them would be a challenge.)

This is a miracle that can’t be dismissed. How, then, to explain it? The administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani will brook no doubt that it’s the work of City Hall and the Police Department, with an assist from the district attorneys and the courts. But even as police leaders and consultants travel around the country preaching the new science of crime reduction to cities seeking miracles of their own, many of the people who make their livings studying these matters have felt impelled to look for another explanation, less flattering to law enforcement.

When the downward trend first began, in the early Nineties, criminologists pointed out that the number of males between fifteen and nineteen—now roughly the most crime-prone ages—had decreased by 20 percent during the previous two decades. That figure, however, soon leveled off and began slowly climbing again, yet crime continued to fall.3 Attention then shifted from demographics to economics: improved unemployment and wage figures. But the correlation between crime and the economy has never been close, and New York City, where the unemployment rate remains over 9 percent, has been conspicuously slow to bounce back from the recession of the early Nineties. The decrease in crime, moreover, has been concentrated in some woefully poor neighborhoods, where those most likely to commit crimes—young males—remain largely untouched by the improving economy.

And so, the search has carried a few dogged scholars back to the theory they initially rejected. “When you have eliminated the impossible,” Sherlock Holmes observed, “what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

In law enforcement’s own telling, or, at any rate, in George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles’s Fixing Broken Windows—the first of what promises to be a series of inside accounts—the miracle of declining crime begins with a dilemma that faced the officials who ran the New York City subway system in the Eighties. Thanks to a major capital improvement campaign, the subways worked and looked better than they had in years. But subway patronage was falling, as it had fallen over decades of chronic undermaintenance. Surveys were duly conducted. The public, it turned out, was not unaware of the new cars, tracks, and signalling equipment that had been purchased. The public’s mind, however, was stuck on conditions that hadn’t improved: rowdy teenagers, boomboxes, the smell of urine, people sleeping in cars and stations, and other manifestations of what Kelling and Coles call “disorder.”

The capital improvement plan had been conceived by Richard Ravitch, a builder and dabbler in elective politics, who, as the unsalaried chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—parent body of the subways—maneuvered through Albany, Washington, and Wall Street to emerge, in 1981, with improbable billions of dollars for renovating subway and commuter-rail equipment and stations. This was a remarkable political effort, undertaken at a time of appalling disregard for the subways in particular and public spaces and facilities in general. But when it came to the human issues that caused many New Yorkers to continue to shun the subways, Ravitch was unable to muster the same resolve. They were social issues, he declared, meaning not the subway’s problems.4 With the first wave of improvements complete, however—and with nothing to show for them at the farebox—Ravitch’s successor, Robert Kiley, and David Gunn, the President of the New York City Transit Authority, decided that this was a distinction they could no longer afford to make.

Fixing Broken Windows is a sequel to “Broken Windows,” a 1982 Atlantic article, which became scripture for the Transit Authority in its assault on disorder. Co-written by Kelling, a criminologist who does consulting on the side, and by the political scientist James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows” was, among other things, an excoriation of American policing in the second half of the twentieth century. Faced with rising urban violence—and prodded by the courts—the police, Wilson and Kelling argued, had concentrated on emergencies and felony crime, meanwhile all but decriminalizing such low-level offenses (akin to breaking windows) as spraying graffiti, playing loud music, getting aggressively drunk, and urinating in public. And yet, as Wilson and Kelling observed, these conditions were important to city dwellers, and, therefore, to the vitality of neighborhoods.

In Fixing Broken Windows, Kelling and Coles cite Jane Jacobs as a source of their ideas, and speak of the way in which disorder intrudes on the routine civilities that Jacobs has called the “small change” of urban life. When disorder is ignored, people don’t just feel less safe. According to the broken-windows theory, they are less safe. Public safety, as Jacobs observed, depends on a critical mass of confident and engaged citizens actively monitoring the scene. But fear makes people cower or stay indoors. It might be possible, then, for serious crime to go up as a result of a police determination to concentrate on serious crime.

In the subway chapter of Fixing Broken Windows, Kelling sheds his scholarly persona and, none too gracefully, enters the narrative in the third person; for it was he who, at Kiley’s and Gunn’s behest, oversaw the effort both to identify the specific conditions that made subway riders (and potential riders) uneasy and to lay out a set of remedies that would pass muster with the courts and not raise too many objections elsewhere. In Kelling’s plan, the subway system was to be blanketed with signs listing forms of prohibited conduct—lying down, for example—and, after due notice, the rules were to be strictly enforced.

That job, of course, fell to the police—to the New York City Transit Police Department, or, as it was known in the trade, the “cave cops.” The city cops and the cave cops were separate entities, but applicants took a single test and got channeled one way or the other by lottery. The transit department thus consisted largely of people who, having hoped to become city cops, had been sent into the caves against their will. So they were a badly demoralized lot from the moment of their swearing-in, and further indignities awaited them.

As long as there have been police, those in power have expected them to deal with “undesirables”—that is, with people who manage to cause offense without necessarily committing an identifiable criminal act. Hubert Williams, the former police chief of Newark, New Jersey, has nicely described what tends to happen in these situations: a sergeant or lieutenant tells his assembled subordinates, “Don’t do anything illegal, but get them out of there.” The cops understand these words to mean, “Do whatever it takes, and cover your ass.” They understand further that when theory and practice collide, they—the cops—will be held responsible. So they tend to drag their feet. That, in any case, is what the transit police did, until Kiley and Gunn decided to give them a new chief.

William Bratton, the man they turned to, was a postal worker’s son who had risen through the ranks of the Boston Police Department with what his superiors there had come to regard as unseemly haste. By the time the Transit Authority recruited him, Bratton had run two police organizations in his home state. Nevertheless, he had a healthy contempt for the bureaucratic cast of mind, as well as the insight (rare in paramilitary organizations) that a chief should sell his policies to the rank and file. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Bratton made a nocturnal inspection of the troops. He found one of them slouched against the wall of a station, smoking a cigarette. The average police chief, beholding such a shabby representative of the profession, would take his name and give him a tongue-lashing. Bratton asked the cop what his post was. “This is it,” he replied, explaining that he was under orders to spend an entire tour of duty in that one spot, protecting the token booth and deterring fare-beaters—a stultifyingly boring assignment that, in his view, didn’t deserve to be called police work.

Farebeating, as it happened, was a major item on Bratton’s agenda. Besides being costly in its own right, it contributed to the sense of a system that was out of control. In some stations, “coinsuckers” would whisk paying customers in through half-cocked turnstiles, and then remove their tokens with breath-power. (At my stop, 72nd Street and Broadway, the coinsuckers went about their business so genially, and with such self-assurance, that they might have been taken for doormen.) Nevertheless, Bratton was moved by the cop’s complaint—so moved that he resolved to hire private guards to control farebeating.

  1. 1

    David Burnham, Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes, and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice (Scribner, 1996), Chapter 4, “The Numbers Game.” Burnham points out that when the Justice Department began its victimization surveys in the mid-Seventies, they showed crime holding steady, even as police/FBI crime statistics continued to suggest dramatic increases.

  2. 2

    These are New York City Police Department statistics. The shooting figures refer, more precisely, to the number of victims.

  3. 3

    Demographic statistics cited in Citizens Crime Commission, “Reducing Gun Crime in New York City: A Research and Policy Report,” pp. 42-43.

  4. 4

    See James Lardner, “Painting the Elephant,” The New Yorker, June 25, 1984.

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