In 1990, there were 2,245 murders in New York’s five boroughs. By 1997 the number had fallen to less than 800. How did the murders drop so dramatically? How did something succeed when it was deemed impossible to accomplish?
This was the focal point of the Levy lecture on October 12, which included a virtual presentation by Peter Moskos on the reasons for the dramatic decline in violent crime that took place in New York City between 1993 and 1999 or so. For Moskos, an Evanstonian native and ETHS graduate (Class of 1989), this turnaround is at the center of his next untitled book, which is scheduled for publication by the University of California Press in 2023.
Moskos studies police culture and crime prevention, and has the skills to delve deeper into these issues. He received his undergraduate degree in sociology from Princeton and his doctorate in sociology from Harvard. For his doctorate. research, he became a policeman in Baltimore for 20 months (six months at the academy and 14 months on patrol). His experiences in policing one of the most criminal areas in the country are the subject of his first book, “Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District”.
He currently resides in New York City and is a Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Administration of Criminal Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, where he directs the Masters of Leadership program at the Police Department of New York.
Moskos said the idea of ââthe police as a means of deterring and preventing crime, rather than detecting and punishing after the fact, originated in Britain in 1829 with the then Home Secretary, Robert Peel. The policy changes proved successful and the concept was introduced to New York in 1845 under the term “new police”.
Another major shift in the philosophy of urban policing and crime prevention was promoted by Jane Jacobs in her book “The Death and Lives of America’s Great Cities,” published in 1961. Jacobs believed that the people who lived in the neighborhoods, “eyes in the street,” maintained a “network of voluntary controls and standards” that kept the peace. She hypothesized that the rot, disorder and fear in cities – represented by shattered windows – lead to crime and disorder.
In March 1982, George Kelling, criminologist, and James Q. Wilson, political scientist, cited the work of Jacobs in an article they wrote for The Atlantic, entitled “Broken Windows”. They believed police should focus on disorder and fear and take a discretionary, problem-based approach to the workplace. They hypothesized that visible signs of crime, civil disorder and anti-social behavior, such as dropping out, tariff evasion, vandalism, loitering or drinking alcohol in public, lead to an atmosphere of fear, chaos and lawlessness, and ultimately more serious crimes.
The idea caught on and was widely adopted in New York City, and not too soon. Life in New York City in the 1980s was dangerous. Crime was rampant and many locals were afraid to travel to certain places or use public transport at night. Moskos shared audio and video clips of interviews he conducted with officials, some of whom are still in office, who helped design and implement the innovative policy changes attributed to the decline in violent crime.
He briefly presented five examples of glaring successes in New York: the Clean Car Program which focused on the subway system from 1983 to 1988, the restoration of Bryant Park in the early 1990s, the redesign of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. via Operation Alternatives in 1991, the focus on turnstile jumps on the subway in the early 1990s, and the NYPD’s implementation of Compstat, weekly crime analysis meetings, in the mid-1990s. Readers can watch Moskos’ presentation on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel for details of each case.
The lessons learned and the commonalities in these situations are the main takeaways for other police services in other cities. According to Moskos:
- Focus on the problem, not the source. In the first success story, the NYC Transit Authority realized that graffiti-smeared subway cars transmitted lawlessness and disorder to passengers, which scared them. Lesson Learned: Get rid of graffiti to regain control and get rid of fear.
- Set clear goals. In the previous example, the NYC Transit Authority made a commitment to end graffiti on subway cars. He started by cleaning a metro line and chose the busiest and most visible line, # 7. Like most New York subway lines, it crisscrosses several boroughs, uses hundreds of subway cars every day, and operates 24/7. But eventually and gradually she and every line in the system was cleaned up. Fear has diminished and metro ridership has increased.
- Collaboration is essential. In New York City, the police department, the five district attorneys, other city agencies and senior local government officials were all on board. They empowered and supported the people hired to implement the changes.
- Be receptive to ideas from other sources, including those that are unlikely. For inspiration, look at other industries and even what your counterparts are doing in other countries. Develop best practices.
- Don’t skimp on resources. Provide the necessary funds for training, equipment and supplies over and above the people and time to maintain the project. Where possible, reduce unnecessary red tape. In the case of the Port Authority’s success, the police had to rid the building of dozens of homeless people who were hiding in the stairwells and sleeping on benches. Each person was offered social services – shelter, food, emergency medical treatment if needed – but if they refused to leave or be sheltered, arrest was a viable option.
- Don’t tolerate setbacks. Respond consistently and repeatedly to send a message that the mess will not be tolerated. Little things matter.
- âBroken Windowsâ is a philosophy and CompStat (short for Computer Statistics) is an accountability tool. They both needed leadership, training and political support to be successful. Once implemented, they need resources for maintenance, otherwise standards slip and new problems result.
- Don’t lose your focus. When the NYPD ran out of new ideas, they abused a âstop and friskâ policy. It hurt both the police and the public.
- Listen to the people on the ground. People at the scene have ideas based on experience. Sometimes a small change can have a big impact.
- Try out new ideas. Evaluate and recalibrate. If that doesn’t work, throw it away and try something else. There are no easy solutions. Learn from the inevitable mistakes.
Moskos has the experience and perspective to offer insight into what New York’s success means for other cities facing seemingly intractable problems. On the one hand, there must be consequences to bad behavior. If there is no political will to make the tough decisions, then all bets are off. The precision font works. Collaboration between departments is crucial. For example, is there a willingness to bring charges to justice? Is there a repercussion when disorder and lawlessness arise?
The police are and can be a positive force in the community. People want to feel safe in their neighborhood. Police can help restore that sense of security, but Moskos believes officers need to get out of their patrol cars and hit the streets to be more effective.
Sure, these are big problems, but they are not impossible to solve. A community needs political will, funding and appropriate leadership. New York City, in Moskos’ eyes, proved it was possible.