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ETHS grad Peter Moskos shares lessons learned from NYC’s 1990s crime decline

In 1990, there were 2,245 murders across the five boroughs of New York City. By 1997, the number had dropped to under 800. How did murders drop so dramatically? How did something succeed when it was deemed impossible to accomplish?

That was the crux of the Oct. 12 Levy Lecture, which featured a virtual presentation by Peter Moskos on the reasons behind the dramatic drop in violent crime that took place in New York City from approximately 1993 through 1999. For Moskos, a native Evanstonian and ETHS graduate (Class of 1989), this turnaround is the focus of his upcoming book, still untitled, scheduled for publication by University of California Press in 2023.

Moskos studies police culture and crime prevention, and has the right skill set to dig into these issues. He received his undergraduate degree in sociology from Princeton and his doctorate degree in sociology from Harvard. For his Ph.D. research, he became a police officer in Baltimore for 20 months (six months at the academy and 14 months on patrol). His experiences policing one of the most crime-ridden areas in the country is the topic of his first book, “Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District.”

Currently he resides in New York and is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, where he directs the college’s New York Police Department Executive Master’s Leadership Program.

Moskos said the idea of policing as a way of deterring and preventing crime, as opposed to detecting and punishing after the fact, originated in Great Britain in 1829 with then-Home Secretary Robert Peel. The policy changes proved to be successful and the concept was introduced in New York in 1845 under the term, “the 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 Life of Great American Cities,” published in 1961. Jacobs believed that the people who lived in the neighborhoods, the “eyes on the street,” maintained a “network of voluntary controls and standards” that kept the peace. She theorized that decay, disorder and fear in cities – represented by broken windows – leads to criminality and disorder.

In March 1982, George Kelling, a criminologist, and James Q. Wilson, a political scientist, cited Jacobs’ work in an article they wrote for The Atlantic, titled “Broken Windows.” They believed the police needed to focus on disorder and fear and follow a problem-oriented discretionary approach on the job. They theorized that visible signs of crime, civil disorder and anti-social behavior, such as jaywalking, fare-evasion, vandalism, loitering or public drinking, lead to an atmosphere of fear, chaos, and lawlessness, and eventually to more serious crimes.

The idea caught on and was widely adopted in New York, and none too soon. Life in New York City during the 1980s was dangerous. Crime was rampant and many residents were afraid to go to certain places or use public transportation at night. Moskos shared audio and video clips of interviews he has conducted with the public servants, some still on the job, who helped design and implement the innovative policy changes credited with the drop in violent crime.

He presented in brief five examples of clear-cut successes in New York: the Clean Car Program that focused on the subway system from 1983-1988, the restoration of Bryant Park in the early 1990s, the overhaul of the Port Authority Bus Terminal through Operation Alternatives in 1991, the focus on turnstile-jumping in the subway in the early 1990s and the NYPD’s implementation of Compstat, weekly meetings of crime analysis, in the mid 1990s. Readers may watch Moskos’ presentation on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel to learn the details of each case.

The lessons learned and common threads in these situations are the big takeaways for other police departments in other cities. According to Moskos:

  1. Focus on the problem, not the source. In the first success story, the NYC Transit Authority realized that subway cars tagged with graffiti conveyed lawlessness and disorder to passengers, and that made them afraid. Lesson learned: Get rid of the graffiti to regain control and get rid of fear.

  2. Establish clear goals. In the previous example, the NYC Transit Authority made a commitment to end graffiti on subway cars. It started by cleaning up one subway line, and chose the busiest and most visible line, the No. 7. Like most subway lines in NYC, it crisscrosses multiple boroughs, uses hundreds of subway cars each day, and runs 24/7. But eventually and incrementally, it and every line in the system was cleaned up. Fear abated and subway ridership increased.

  3. Collaboration is essential. In New York, the police leadership, the five District Attorneys, other city agencies, and higher-ups in local government were all on board. They empowered and backed the people hired to implement the changes.

  4. Be receptive to ideas from other sources, including unlikely ones. For inspiration, look at other industries and even what your counterparts in other countries do. Develop best practices.

  5. Don’t skimp on resources. Provide the funds needed for training, equipment and supplies beyond the people and time to maintain the project. Cut unnecessary red tape when possible. In the Port Authority success case, the police needed to rid the building of scores of homeless individuals who would hide in stairwells and sleep on benches. Each person was offered social services – shelter, food, emergency medical treatment if needed – but if they refused to leave or be sheltered, then arrest was a viable option.

  6. Don’t tolerate setbacks. Respond consistently and repeatedly to send a message that disorder will not be tolerated. Little things matter.

  7. “Broken Windows” is a philosophy and CompStat (short for Computer Statistics) is an accountability tool. They both needed leadership, training and political support to succeed. Once implemented, they need resources for maintenance, otherwise standards slip and new problems result.

  8. Don’t lose focus. When the NYPD ran out of new ideas, they overused a “stop and frisk” policy. This harmed both policing and the public.

  9. Listen to the people in the field. The people on the scene have insights based on experience. Sometimes a small change can make a big impact.

  10. Try new ideas. Evaluate and recalibrate. If it doesn’t work, toss it and try something else. There are no easy fixes. Learn from inevitable mistakes.

Moskos has the experience and perspective to offer insights about what New York’s success means to other cities faced with seeming intractable problems. For one, there must be consequences to bad behavior. If there is no political willingness to make hard decisions, then all bets are off. Precision policing works. Collaboration between departments is crucial. For instance, is there a willingness to bring charges to trial? Is there a repercussion when disorder and lawlessness occurs?

Police are and can be a positive force in the community. People want to feel safe in their neighborhoods. The police can help re-establish that safe feeling, but Moskos believes officers have to get out of their patrol cars and onto the street to be most effective.

Admittedly, these are big problems, but they are not impossible to solve. A community needs political willingness, funding, and the right leadership. New York City, in Moskos’ eyes, proved that it’s possible.

By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.


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