When discussing law enforcement on either side of the Atlantic, I remember a quote from the late-great cop and former First Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD, John Timoney: “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, and those who study policing know we don’t study history”.
It’s a lesson I took to heart: guided by the nine principles of Sir Robert Peel, the father of the Metropolitan police service, I helped to clean up the crime-ravaged streets of 1990s New York City. For Peel, it was clear that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” This was an ethos I would quickly apply in the line of duty.
As a Boston Police supervisor enacting the city’s first “Neighborhood Policing” initiative, I quickly learned that even as serious crime rose, concern from citizens was primarily focused on low-level offenses (so-called victimless crimes) such as public drinking, graffiti, disorderly behavior, fare evasion, prostitution and public urination – disorder that they witnessed every day. This is where we, the police, focused many 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: “Broken Windows” theory was born. Announced 150 years after Sir Robert Peel flooded London with blue-uniformed officers, the pair’s study suggested that the presence of the cops, free to apply their own discretion over the extent of enforcement, was the best determinant of meaningful crime reduction.
It was in New York City’s subways in 1990, when I was privileged to lead the then-separate Transit Police Department, that Broken Windows theory was formally put to the test. The results proved what Sir Robert knew to be true a century and a half before. The Transit Police Officers were given the ability to be proactive in addressing lawlessness by going after problems like fare beaters, those damaging trains with graffiti, panhandling, and homelessness.
To further drive home the success of Broken Windows, we quickly learned that serious criminals committed petty crimes, too. As it turns out, those who carried weapons and were wanted on warrants rarely bothered to pay the fare. By arresting those skipping the turnstiles, we could ensure that these serious criminals would no longer offer a threat to passengers.
The subway became much safer, and just as importantly, three-and-a-half million riders felt safer. Over a three-year period from 1990 to 1993, subway crime fell by 35.9 per cent. In the city as a whole, where quality-of-life enforcement was less rigorous, it fell only 17.9 per cent – a percentage bumped up by our successful reform of transit system policing.
Just a few short years later, our successful policing techniques were put in place across the city after I was selected as NYPD Commissioner. Broken Windows paired with CompStat (an award-wining crime reduction and management accountability system we created in the NYPD) made a massive impact, reducing crime in New York City by 46.1 per cent from 1990 to 1996.
Our crime reduction miracle was recognised around the world. In 1995, the then-Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw visited New York City to learn about how we were winning the war against crime and disorder. The irony was not lost on us that the foundation of our success came from his fellow Englishman, Sir Robert.
Though Straw’s visit to New York City was eye-opening, the UK took a different approach to policing antisocial behavior: “Zero Tolerance”. As I told the UK Home Affairs Committee in 2011, I would not advocate for attempting zero tolerance in any city in any country in the world. It is simply not achievable. Zero Tolerance policing, which is often wrongly compared to Broken Windows policing, is not something we practiced, supported or endorsed, other than zero tolerance of police corruption. You cannot totally eliminate crime or social disorder – but you can reduce it significantly, as we proved in cities across America.
As time passed, crime rates continued to drop in New York City. In 2014, I was given another chance to make a difference for New Yorkers when my second tenure as NYPD Commissioner began. I honed the practice, driving violent crime and disorder levels down to historic lows.
Sir Robert Peel still has lessons to teach us. His second principle – that “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions” – rings especially true in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Amplified by a wave of anti-police sentiment, many American cities began to decriminalise quality-of-life offenses like fare evasion and public urination, with the process often driven by ideologically-motived prosecutors. The outcome was predictable for anybody who knew the history: the lawlessness that had been driven out of our streets and subways returned, and with it came higher violent crime rates.
While cities like New York and London have begun to get their arms around the violent crime problems they experienced after the Covid-19 pandemic, citizens still feel unsafe. The statistics may tell the public that crime is decreasing, but if people do not feel better about their neighborhood because they still experience unaddressed disorder, they are not going to believe it.
Think of weeds in a garden as a symbol of social disorder. If you do not weed a garden, it will be overrun and destroyed. If you do not deal with supposedly minor offenses, they too will grow, inviting fear and despair. By focusing only on major crime and ignoring the minor, political leaders have chosen to trim weeds rather than uprooting them.
Any police strategy that does not simultaneously address disorder as well as serious crime is doomed to failure. Everything old is new again. To clean up our streets and restore trust in the institution of policing, we need not look further than the past.
Bill Bratton, CBE is the former two-time police commissioner of the NYPD, chief of the LAPD, police commissioner of Boston, and chief of the New York City Transit Police
Scott Glick is a retired NYPD first grade detective who patrolled northern Manhattan, and most recently worked in the office of the police commissioner and the department’s public information office