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Fix Broken Windows

by Ari Maas, police officer (as seen on

In September 2017, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office began to decline prosecution of fare evasion. The other New York City district attorneys followed suit. They also stopped prosecuting other rule violations and petty crimes in the subway. Having policed some of the largest transportation hubs in the nation and having spent five years of my career policing the subways, I knew that once disorder crept into a transportation system, the system will become less safe, causing riders to flee for other alternatives.

Unfortunately, I was right. In 2018, crime in the subway increased. Whether from fear or a desire to avoid beggars, homeless, and mentally ill, more riders shifted to other transportation modes, and ridesharing apps made this choice rather simple. Between 2017 and 2018, subway ridership decreased by about 3%. Even in the year of the pandemic, when ridership is down 30%, crime is still up, and this despite the system being shut down for the first time in history, from 1am to 5am every night.

In addition to declining ridership, fare evasion costs the Transit Authority more than $200 million dollars a year. This puts maintenance and capital projects on hold. This perfect storm of decline started with the decisions to tolerate disorder and not prosecute low-level offenses.

One key to fixing Broken Windows is to stop conflating Broken Windows with stop-and-frisk and zero tolerance. Those who most benefit from Broken Windows — those who need and want good policing — are those going to work who can’t afford to call an Uber.

The theory of Broken Windows, introduced by James Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, was never popular among a certain kind of reformer because, at its core, Wilson and Kelling believed in the positive possibility of policing, that good police could actually maintain order and prevent more serious crime. This conflicted with the “root causes” model, still accepted as faith in most of academia, which refuses to believe that crime reduction can come from anything except reductions in poverty, racism, unemployment, and other social ills.

The fact that Broken Windows did reduce crime in New York City and elsewhere in the 1990s did little mollify critics. And the cause of Broken Windows wasn’t helped when it morphed into stat-based Zero Tolerance policing in the 2000s in New York City.

Full piece here.



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