May 16, 2019


Kelling and Wilson ended the Atlantic essay with a plea to return to the “night watchman” role of policing. That model, stemming from America’s colonial period, focused on discretionary order maintenance. It had been supplanted in the 1960s by the rule-bound, rapid-response model of policing, whereby officers in patrol cars raced to crime scenes as quickly as possible. Kelling and Wilson urged departments to put cops back on foot patrol.  In a now-overlooked but prescient coda, they rejected the emerging libertarian consensus that authorities should ignore disreputable behavior—such as drug dealing and use, public prostitution, and illegal gambling—that allegedly hurts no one. If such behavior occurs en masse, it destroys whole neighborhoods. The police, they concluded, have a responsibility to protect communities as well as individuals.

The first big test of the Broken Windows concept occurred in New York City’s subway system in the 1980s. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) had lost control to graffiti vandals who defaced entire subway cars. New Yorkers who could not flee to private automobiles or to the suburbs cowered underground under a pall of ugliness and crime. In 1984, the MTA announced that it would eradicate subway graffiti, which it did by cleaning every car when it returned to the train yards, thus denying vandals the satisfaction of seeing their spray-painted aggressions touring the city. By 1989, the MTA declared victory. A relieved public returned to the now graffiti-free subways in ever-higher numbers, creating an informal bulwark against subterranean crime.

Ray Kelly drew on Broken Windows insights during his first tour as New York police commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins, cracking down on the infamous “squeegee men” who “offered” to clean the car windows of drivers stuck in New York’s bridge and tunnel traffic. In 1994, Broken Windows theory went citywide under newly elected mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton. Bratton and Kelling had collaborated at the Kennedy School of Government in the 1980s, studying how midlevel police commanders can best use their authority. As New York commissioner, Bratton targeted public prostitution, aggressive begging, and, most significantly, subway turnstile-jumping. The trains themselves may no longer have symbolized a city out of control, but the sight of youth defiantly breaking the rules with impunity underscored the perception that the forces of anarchy still ruled over the forces of civilization in New York. Bratton instructed the transit cops to arrest the fare-beaters, rather than standing by passively waiting for more “serious” crime. Many of the fare thieves were wanted precisely for those serious crimes, including rape and murder. Criminals, it turned out, do not scrupulously obey one set of laws while violating another—they are polymorphous offenders. Subway riders cheered on the arrests, which signaled a broader determination to restore order.

The Broken Windows concept spread beyond policing. Business-improvement districts seized on Kelling’s work to revive central business cores, wrenching trash- and graffiti-filled streets back from chaos. Without the advances in policing and urban management that Broken Windows ushered in, New York City would never have experienced its 1990s economic renaissance.

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