New York City was a mess throughout the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Across the board crime rates were high, being their highest in 1990. There were 2,600 homicides, 5,300 rapes, and 188,000 vehicle thefts. Things seemed as if they could only get worse, but something peculiar happened. Crimes rates dropped fast. Within 6 years the number of homicides and vehicle thefts were cut in half and rapes were cut down 1/5. In 2011 these numbers dropped even further, with only 770 homicides, 2,750 rapes, and 19,000 thefts occurring.
Now how did this happen? How did New York City clean itself up to the point where it was safe to take the subway and walk around at night? It all started with the Broken Windows theory, a sociological theory of deviance. According to the theory, crime is contagious. The classic example to explain it is that if a window on a building is broken and left unrepaired, then eventually all the building’s windows will end up broken. Disorder essentially leads to more disorder because the first broken window sends a message to people who pass by that no one cares and that no one is in charge. This is what caused the graffiti covered subway cars that have come to symbolize the period. One person vandalized something that wasn’t cleaned up and as result more vandalism occurred. Similarly, minor crimes gone unchecked, like vandalism or farebeating, lead to more serious crimes.
New York City decided to put the Broken Windows theory into action. The city started with the subways, specifically the graffiti. Cleaning stations were established to ensure that no car would have a mark of graffiti. Then the transit police started cracking down on farebeating. About 170,000 people entered the system daily without paying, indicative of the minor deviance that existed, which could result in more serious crimes. Cops were placed in stations dressed as pedestrians, who not only arrested farebeaters, but also chained them together in a line to show as publicly as possible that farebeating would not be taken lightly. This proved to be a brilliant strategy for the NYPD because 1/7 arrestees had an outstanding warrant for a previous crime and 1/20 were carrying a weapon. Potentially dangerous individuals were taken off the streets, while simultaneously establishing incentives for people not to farebeat. These strategies to crack down on minor crimes were applied to the city as whole in 1994 and the city hasn’t looked back since.