Addressing disorder, even while driving down serious crime, is the key to livable neighborhoods.
In 1982, while home from college for summer break, I accompanied my father — at the time a captain in the NYPD — to a gathering at the old New York City Police Academy on 20th Street to hear the scholar George Kelling speak to the department’s command staff about his recently published article, “Broken Windows,” which Kelling had co-authored with one of my Harvard professors, James Q. Wilson.
I sat in the rear of the auditorium as Kelling explained to the assembled brass how and why they needed to shift their approach to policing from chasing 911 emergency calls to a focus on seemingly minor goals like breaking up dice games, ticketing people for public intoxication and generally maintaining order on rowdy street corners, parks and playgrounds.
Cops, Kelling said, were there to uphold the law, not play the role of social workers. “Kick ass,” he advised the officers, who sat silently and showed little interest. To my teenage ears, it sounded like a formula for ineffective policing and widespread injustice, and I later wrote an angry screed about Kelling’s talk in the Harvard Crimson.
Little did I realize I had witnessed the opening act of a modern policing revolution. A decade later, violent crime in the city was plunging dramatically as the NYPD discovered the extraordinary leverage gained by focusing on disorder instead of trying to intercept violent crime.
Many years after his talk, I got to know Kelling and enjoyed speaking with him privately, in media interviews and on a public panel. By then, broken-windows policing — targeting small violations to prevent big outbreaks of crime — was enshrined as NYPD policy, although critics conflated the strategy with the excessive and unjustifiable use of stop-question-and-frisk in inner-city neighborhoods. A federal judge declared stop-and-frisk, as practiced in the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, to be unconstitutional and ordered a rollback of its use. In 2013, Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio won the first of two terms with a promise to move away from stop-and-frisk and broken-windows policing, although the neighborhood policing strategy he championed as a replacement retains most of Kelling and Wilson’s insights.
New Yorkers, by and large, understand the importance of distinguishing between neighbors who are a nuisance and those who are a genuine public safety threat.
A full 40 years after “Broken Windows,” where do things stand? Kelling and Wilson are deceased, but their fundamental observations — and a generation of practical application — remain relevant. New Yorkers, by and large, understand the importance of distinguishing between neighbors who are a nuisance and those who are a genuine public-safety threat.
The guys who hang on the same corner daily and are occasionally disorderly — drunk or high, perhaps, or engaged in a minor scam like selling loose cigarettes — might be the kind of low-level nuisance that a neighborhood is willing to tolerate. But the same residents are likely to feel very different about dealers who are blasting loud music, running dice games, openly selling drugs and scaring people away from the local bodega.
Public safety requires cops who work with community members to enforce the mostly unwritten rules about what will and won’t be tolerated. In my neighborhood of north Crown Heights, to take a simple example, officers in the 77th Precinct generally understand that the weekend leading up to the West Indian-American Day parade on Labor Day will feature a lot of backyard parties at which soca, calypso and reggae music will be blasted at a volume and a time (up until about 2 a.m.) that would be unacceptable on any other weekend. Across the river, during some summer concerts in Central Park, cops are known to look the other way when picnicking audience members uncork bottles of wine, in a mutually agreed-upon nonenforcement of ordinances prohibiting open containers of alcohol.
But social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — including the wave of protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — have scrambled local rules about crime, disorder and the role of police. A drop in crime at the start of the pandemic has been followed by sharp spikes in assaults and burglaries, including horrifying attacks caught on video. Unchecked shoplifting in drug stores has led to the daily aggravation of seeing basic goods placed in locked cabinets. And New York City’s perennial inability to find housing and treatment for our low-income mentally ill neighbors has left many of them on the streets and subway platforms, looking disheveled or in obvious need of medication.
The result has been an administration run by Mayor Eric Adams, a retired NYPD captain, that is making solid progress on homicides and shootings — but failing to quell the disorder that erodes the quality of life and becomes, for many New Yorkers, more unsettling than reports of shootings.
Public safety requires cops who work with community members to enforce the mostly unwritten rules about what will and won’t be tolerated.
You’d never know from looking at the news that murders and shootings in the city are both down by about 14 percent in 2022 compared to the same period in 2021. The NYPD has been focused on stemming gun violence as a top priority, says Chief Michael LiPetri, who leads the NYPD’s crime strategies division.
“It’s the very small number of individuals that continue to drive violence in New York City. We’re talking about less than one percent — 0.008 percent — of the population in New York City, about a thousand individuals, are responsible for a lion’s share of the shootings across the city. And a lot of this is fueled by younger crew violence, “ LiPetri told me.
The cops are actively pursuing cases against the thousand drivers of violence and have created a special unit dedicated solely to finding and removing illegal guns from the streets. But that is small comfort to New Yorkers who are on edge, seeing a daily diet of shoplifting, petty thievery, loud illegal dirt bikes and other nuisances.
“If you went to tough areas in New York City and asked people to identify the five major problems, at least three of them will be minor offenses — more likely four,” Kelling once told me. “And even if you’re hearing the bullets going by outside, there is a demand for order that comes predominantly out of minority and poor neighborhoods who are suffering the most by victimization and unruly behavior in public spaces.”
The challenge for the Adams administration is to continue pushing down homicides and shootings — but also make measurable progress on restoring the sense of order that, for most New Yorkers, is what we mean by saying that crime is down.