Posted on | September 25, 2013 | 26 Comments
While writing about the Matthew Shepard case, I mentioned how a crackdown on fare-beaters in the New York City subway system turned up a number of criminals wanted on warrants for serious crime. Someone on Twitter asked for more information about this, so I found this article at City Journal featuring William Bratton, the police chief who made this breakthrough in crime prevention:
The system at the time was having a hard time dealing with the problem of fare evasion. Fare evasion, in the form of scruffy characters who would go under turnstiles, or over turnstiles, because it seemed that nobody was maintaining them or even cared about them, increased to 250,000 people a day and was growing worse all the time.
How did we know that? The subway system documented it. They would literally have people go out once a month, stand at every turnstile, and count the fare evaders. We had a very accurate understanding of the problem, but the subway police had a mentality that they didn’t want to address minor crimes like a $1.15 fare theft.
Subway police management didn’t want to deal with it because to make an arrest in New York City at that time would take approximately twelve to twenty-four hours of police administrative time—an entire day, in other words, to process a $1.15 theft of service. This meant losing an officer from the subway system for significant periods of time, and since they only had about 700 officers on the system at any given time, if they were making a lot of arrests there would be nobody left to police the rest of the system.
We developed a number of strategies to increase the number of arrests while still reducing arrest-processing time. We designed “bust busses”, so that instead of taking prisoners twenty miles down to the central booking facility, we brought an arrest bus right to the scene. We would arrest people below ground, get them up into the bus and process them there. Those that didn’t have outstanding warrants could be quickly processed and then released. Those that had warrants would be held.
And what did we find? Thanks to a very cost-effective arrest procedure, the system actually raised police morale. In a nutshell, cops like making arrests. That’s what they do. But they don’t want to make arrests that don’t have any impact. They don’t want to make arrests that keep them chained to a prisoner for twenty-four hours. They want to be part of something that they feel is going to have a demonstrable impact.
Once our program was underway, officers discovered that one out of every seven people we were arresting for fare evasion was wanted on a warrant. Often times, these warrants would be for very serious crimes: murders, rapes, and so on. One out of every twenty-one fare-evaders, at least initially, was carrying some type of weapon — ranging from a straightedge razor on up to Uzi submachine guns. Eventually this process excited police because they had a good chance of catching significant offenders without exorbitant effort.
And, perhaps most importantly, crime began to go down. Fare evasion began to go down. Why? We were using the police in a very public, visible way to control behavior. We were going after minor types of crime, and yet we were also having a significant impact on more serious crimes. If you’re a felon coming into the system to commit a robbery, you’re not going to pay $1.15 to ride the subway. Criminals are very cost-efficient that way; if you are intent on stealing through theft or violence, you won’t contribute to the MTA. Given that practical reality, cracking down on fare evasion provided a significant disincentive for other crimes as well.
Now, thirteen years later, crime in the subway system is down almost 90 percent from what it was in 1990. The MTA no longer counts fare evaders. There are so few now that it is not economically sensible to put out counters every month to keep track of them, and the MTA system now has five and one-half million riders.
This has been called proof of the “Broken Windows” theory of crime prevention, which is really just common sense: If you tolerate minor “nuisance” crimes, the resulting public disorder creates an environment in which serious crime becomes more likely.
It’s like when cops pull over a driver for having a busted tail light on his car. This minor infraction provides a reason for the cops to check the guy’s license and registration, see if there is any odor of alcohol or marijuana, and then they run the driver’s name through the computer to see if he has any outstanding warrants.
People who commit major crimes are also prone to commit minor infractions, so that even the enforcement of things as simple as traffic ordinances can be used to reduce crime. It’s not just that strict enforcement brings criminals under closer scrutiny, but it also sends a message that police are on the lookout, enforcing public order.