James Q. Wilson and Broken Window Theory Redux in New York

October 27th, 2013

The New York Post has an article documenting the rise of panhandling on the subways, with a decrease of enforcement by the NYPD.

The NYPD said panhandler/peddler arrests in the subway have increased over the past year, with 409 pinched so far in 2013 versus 395 in 2012. But those numbers pale in comparison to 2011, when it was reported that in a six-month span that year, a whopping 930 panhandlers and peddlers — the two are not separated in the data — were arrested.

“There’s been a drop-off,” acknowledged one police source.

The NYPD refused to provide full-year data for 2011, when cops were busy cracking down on underground quality-of-life issues as part of a Transit Bureau initiative called Operation Moving Target.

At that time, the NYPD explained arrests were up because of a targeted effort by the Transit Bureau to tackle quality-of-life offenses, which can lead to worse crime.

One Councilman channels James Q. Wilson’s Broken Window Theory, noting that failing to handle the low-level crime will lead to a growth of more severe crimes.

One city leader said the stop-and-frisk backlash could be to blame for the drop.

“Police are much more hesitant to be proactive and approach people who may be committing low-level crimes because of anti-NYPD sentiment that’s been growing in political circles,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. “If you are too afraid to approach, then crimes like loitering, open containers and aggressive panhandling will go unpunished.”

That, in turn, can be dangerous.

“Once you allow low-level crimes to fester, more dangerous crimes follow,” Vallone added.

As Wilson documented, fixing a broken window–something minor that people observe– will prevent theft, which will prevent more violent crimes. Taking care of the small things makes people feel more secure, and criminals less eager to commit crimes.

One straphanger also alluded to this fear:

The ranks of the homeless, meanwhile, have swelled to 1,841 this year — a 13 percent increase over last year’s tally, the city’s Department of Homeless Services says.

For straphangers, it has created an atmosphere of fear.

“I feel threatened, especially taking the train at night,” explained Brooklynite Lortashia Smith, who said she has been followed off trains several times. “The police can definitely do more.”

I tried applying Wilson’s theory to keeping my kitchen clean. It still works. Kind of.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani strongly endorsed Wilson’s theories, and used it to cut crimes in New York. Of course, a core tenant of this philosophy was stop-and-frisk, which has been deemed largely unconstitutional.

Also, while I was presenting at NYU Law, I spoke with a student who interned at a homeless rights advocacy group. Much of his job was helping homeless people who were arrested for sleeping on subways, and jumping turnstiles. He noted that the police often write them tickets at the end of the month to make quotas. When they don’t pay up, bench warrants are actually issued. When the person tries to apply for a job, or apartment, or whatever, the bench warrant shows up on the background checks.