Guest Host: Marc Fisher

The “broken windows” theory became something of a mantra in policy and policing in U.S. cities over the past two decades. New York City served as the poster child for the idea that beefed-up enforcement of minor quality of life issues would lead to big drops in more serious crime. But recent studies point to the fact that crime had peaked and was already on a steady downward trajectory well before those tactics were adopted, and that the decline did not speed up as a result of the approach. We explore how these findings might shake long-held beliefs about police tactics and urban crime.


  • David Greenberg Professor of Sociology, New York University
  • Jim Bueermann President, Police Foundation


  • 13:06:38

    MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:06:58

    MR. MARC FISHERLater in this hour, a David and Goliath story about a tiny island nation that has gone up against Americans' passion for internet gambling. But first, in the 1970s and '80s, urban police departments fought a rising tide of violent crime and drug use. In the '90s, New York City under Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton fought back with new strategies.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. MARC FISHERThey argued that cracking down on small crimes would lead to a drop in more serious crimes, the broken windows theory of policing. And New York did see a steep drop in crime. That new approach soon caught on in police departments across the country, including here in Washington, which was once the murder capital of the nation. But a recent study now suggests that those tactics had little to do with the drop in crime.

  • 13:07:49

    MR. MARC FISHERCrime was already on a steady downward trajectory before the new tactics came into play. The author of that study joins us from studios in New York City. David Greenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University. We're also joined by Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation who joins us from southern California. And let's start with Jim Bueermann. The broken windows theory had a real rush of popularity for a while. What was that theory and how did it change policing?

  • 13:08:22

    MR. JIM BUEERMANNWell, the theory is that if you focus on the small things, panhandling and young kids that are kind of getting out of hand at metro stops, things like that, it will have much broader impacts on more serious crime. And I think it became very popular in many police departments because it was easy to understand.

  • 13:08:47

    MR. JIM BUEERMANNIt was certainly something that police officers had to deal with on a daily basis. And it just intuitively made sense to them, if they took care of the small things then the larger problems would follow.

  • 13:09:02

    FISHERAnd David Greenberg at New York University, you've now looked into what the real impact of that theory was on the streets of New York and elsewhere and what did you find?

  • 13:09:13

    MR. DAVID GREENBERGI've been looking at trends in violent crime, meaning homicide, aggravated assault and robbery in New York City precincts between 1988 and 2001. That time span covers the years in which CompStat was introduced as a management tool, enabling police administrators to know where are the local hotspots where the crimes are taking place.

  • 13:09:41

    MR. DAVID GREENBERGI looked at the impact of different measures of law enforcement, admissions to prison, felony arrests, misdemeanor arrests and simply putting more police on the street. The numbers of police stationed in each precinct seemed to have no marginal impact on violent crime rates, nor did admitting more people to prison.

  • 13:10:07

    MR. DAVID GREENBERGIn fact, to save money, New York was dropping the number of people it was locking up in jails, in prisons during this time period. Felony arrests did make an impact particularly on robbery, but only a marginal or modest impact compared to other factors. Misdemeanor arrests for things like possession of marijuana or drinking liquor from an open container had no measurable impact on violent crime.

  • 13:10:37

    FISHERSo Jim Bueermann, why is it -- if the statistics don't back up the efficacy of those theories, why is it that we all in the popular culture have assumed that this made sense and was efficient?

  • 13:10:48

    BUEERMANNWell, one of the reasons I think it makes sense to most people is because it speaks directly to some of those things that people find disconcerting or annoying. Everybody can relate, especially in a more urban context, can relate to running into panhandlers or going into a pharmacy, for instance, or being frightened by inebriated people on the street or seeing a bunch of rowdy, loud teenagers standing around doing what teenagers do when they get together, just talking, not necessarily doing anything.

  • 13:11:29

    BUEERMANNSo people can relate to that and so from a disorder perspective, I think that they would like the police to address those things and when they do, they feel more comfortable with it. And then they extrapolate that comfort or that knowledge that the police are working on those things to these broader and much more serious crime issues and there may, in fact, be a disconnect between some of those.

  • 13:11:52

    FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at Let us know what you think makes the most difference in fighting crime in urban areas? How important do you think it is for police to crack down on these quality-of-life questions, such as graffiti and petty crime?

  • 13:12:09

    FISHERAnd what do you think of the zero tolerance and stop-and-frisk kind of policies that have been used in New York and elsewhere. David Greenberg, you did look at the stop-and-frisk approach that New York City police have used. Has that been effective at all?

  • 13:12:27

    GREENBERGI myself did not do research on that. During that time period, going up to 2001, the police department was not collecting data on stops and was not -- if they had it, they were not releasing it to the public. Only for the last ten years has that kind of data become available.

  • 13:12:46

    GREENBERGRichard Rosenfeld at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and his collaborators had looked at the impact of stop-question-frisk during those years and they find consistent with my findings that this did not have a short-term effect on major felony crimes.

  • 13:13:06

    GREENBERGIn the long run, it may be counterproductive because then it antagonizes the communities where large levels of stopping and frisking people are taking place. Those would be low-income, minority neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, such as Brooklyn or the Bronx.

  • 13:13:22

    FISHERSo you and your colleagues around the country have studied these various explanations for the reduction in violent crime and have concluded in one study or another that putting more people in prison may not do the trick. More police on the streets may not explain it. These new police strategies are not necessarily getting the job done. What then does explain the rather sharp decreases that we've seen in homicides and in some cases other violent crimes in one city after another?

  • 13:13:54

    GREENBERGWe don't know for sure. There are lots of ideas that have been floated. There's ongoing research studying them. One of them that's quite plausible is the stabilizing of the illegal drug markets that were connected and starting in the mid-'80s with crack trafficking and the violence associated with illegal merchanting of these drugs.

  • 13:14:21

    GREENBERGRemoval of lead from the environment may be another powerful factor impacting particularly on low-income, minority communities that are exposed to greater toxicity in the environment. And it's precisely in those neighborhoods in New York where crime dropped fastest.

  • 13:14:42

    GREENBERGBut that could also be related to drug markets because young, black males, through lack of opportunity for a legitimate occupational income, were particularly visible in open-air drug marketing in the city.

  • 13:14:56

    FISHERLet's go to Christine in Arlington. Christine, you're on the air.

  • 13:15:01

    CHRISTINEHi, thanks for taking my call. I was wondering how do you know that all of those efforts haven't stopped a certain Tipping Point, and maybe it's not the only thing, but it may be one thing stops that?

  • 13:15:17

    FISHERDavid Greenberg, Christine is referring to Malcolm Gladwell's theory about the Tipping Point. He popularized this whole question of the broken windows theory. Is there any evidence that this goes beyond folklore?

  • 13:15:34

    GREENBERGThere may be effects of this kind, but they don't show up in the data that I'm analyzing for the precincts. Starting in 1988, property crimes were going down after CompStat was introduced in 1994. They continued going down at basically the same pace they were going down before CompStat was introduced.

  • 13:15:56

    GREENBERGViolent crimes peaked in 1990, four years before CompStat. They did not drop. They did not decline faster. Now, I think there is some credibility to the notion in the sense that if we pulled all the police off the street, if we put no one in prison, clearly that would make an impact, but we may be doing this beyond the point where it produces any returns.

  • 13:16:25

    FISHERJim Bueermann, what do you make of these various academic studies that have sort of pecked away at all of the various theories for the decline in crime? Does that leave us with anything that we can point to as a credible explanation?

  • 13:16:39

    BUEERMANNWell, it does. I mean, I think that one of the things it highlights is the complicated nature of crime. I mean, we're talking about human beings as the most complicated thing on the planet and we clearly don't have a good handle on all of the dynamics of crime reduction, but most of my career was spent as a police officer and a police chief in a department that was very focused on accessing science to try to drive our strategies.

  • 13:17:05

    BUEERMANNAnd I can tell you that it made us a better police department. We were more effective in what we did. But there was a lot of work that needed to be done and this conversation today, I think, highlights the need for increasing use of evidence-based strategies to help drive policing activities and done in a way that does not offend the people that we're trying to protect, which is a major challenge.

  • 13:17:31

    FISHERAnd Jim Bueermann, David Greenberg mentioned the theory that the decline in the use of lead in gasoline, in paint, has, a generation later, produced people who are committing fewer crimes. We got an email from David in Alexandria pointing us to the very well known claim by the economists behind Freakonomics who said that there was also a link between the legalization of abortion, the Rowe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court.

  • 13:18:03

    FISHERAgain, look forward a generation and you see a sharp decline in crime rates and the theory there was, that unwanted children who were the most likely folks to become criminals, because of being unwanted and raised poorly and so on, that therefore that is another posited explanation for the decline in crime rates. Do you lend any credence to those sort of generational theories?

  • 13:18:31

    BUEERMANNWell, I think that what is clear is that crime doesn't just instantly occur. It certainly was my experience as a police officer that people who engaged in these kinds of problem behaviors do so as a result of an aggregation of risk factors in their life, whether those be health issues or environmental concerns and if we intend to ultimately control crime, I think that we have to increasingly focus on those precursors to crime.

  • 13:19:01

    BUEERMANNWhat are the things that precede crime, whether they would be early academic failure or nutritional issues for young children, the way they're raised or these other kind of health-related concerns, as well as things that go on in the community that we're now talking about, the broken windows kind of ideas.

  • 13:19:16

    BUEERMANNBut I think that all of those things aggregate together to create problems for young people that then begin engaging in problem behavior and so this parallel to health care issues and other parts of our experience as human beings makes a lot of sense to me as a policing person.

  • 13:19:37

    BUEERMANNAnd then I think this is where science and evidence and the displacing of those concepts from whatever field they're in and the discipline into policing makes a lot of sense and will help us, I think, see a much more effective return on our tax dollar as it relates to the police.

  • 13:19:52

    FISHERKaren in Alexandria, you're on the air.

  • 13:19:55

    KARENOh, is that me?

  • 13:19:55

    FISHERYes, Karen, go ahead.

  • 13:19:58

    KARENHi, I'm a truck driver and I deliver to Alexandria, but I'm from Pennsylvania and I think the reason a lot of crime has gone down in New York is that crime has moved, the criminals have moved. They've moved into the Poconos in Pennsylvania and my county, group of counties in Pennsylvania. And we're seeing crimes that we've never seen before. And when the people are arrested and it's in the newspaper it always says from New York, from Jersey City. So the crime is moving. You can't just look at where crime is going down. You got to look at where crime is going up.

  • 13:20:34

    FISHERDavid Greenberg, obviously demographics play a role in crime rates and certainly we've seen a wave of gentrification in major urban centers over the last 20 years. Is what Karen is seeing a part of that process where crime is being displaced from more -- from city neighborhoods that are becoming more affluent perhaps into suburban or rural areas?

  • 13:20:59

    GREENBERGI have not studied this. It is a possibility that drug dealing and other kinds of crime are being displaced. People I know who are familiar with the Washington D.C. area tell me that there have been extraordinary crime drops in the last decade in the District, more than in New York. But some of that does seem to entail displacement into Prince George's County, which is something that should be looked at.

  • 13:21:25

    FISHERIncluding a very -- yeah, it's certainly something that is top of mind for many Washingtonians at this moment when we have had a rash of murders in Prince George's County, particularly of young people. And yet the -- although there has been some increase in crime in Prince George's County, it doesn't come close to the amount of the decrease in crime in the District. Jim Bueermann, as you look at statistics from across the country, is the phenomenon of declining crime primarily in big cities or are we seeing that nationwide?

  • 13:21:57

    BUEERMANNNo, we're seeing it nationwide. I think this is one of these really great things that's going on in America today but it is also something that leaves academics and police chiefs and sheriffs across the United States kind of scratching their heads at times, wondering what exactly is going on. And it's important for us to understand this so that we can replicate it in the future or enhance those things that worked.

  • 13:22:23

    FISHERWe have an email from Beth in the District saying, "I thought the drop in violent crime might be attributed to the aging of the population. It takes energy to perpetrate violence. The bulk of the population is now above the age of youthful exuberance, isn't it?" David Greenberg, as you look at the demographics and the aging of the population is there any truth to that theory?

  • 13:22:45

    GREENBERGIn my study young adults being present in a community does elevate levels of violent crime. How much of the crime drop is due to aging of those cohorts, I did not do the computation myself. The government can't really control the aging process. It has to take the population pretty much as it is. And my -- I put the greatest focus on things that we can control such as police practices on the street.

  • 13:23:20

    FISHERWell, and there was, back in the '90s, a flurry of predictions and warnings from everyone from President Clinton to all kinds of academic and political figures saying that we were on the verge of experiencing a massive crime wave, that there would be a generation of super predators who would come along. And they were basing this in part on the fact that the echo of the baby boom was coming along. And the -- it was indeed a surge of young people who got to sort of prime crime years over the last five or seven years. And yet we have not seen that predicted wave of crime. And Jim Bueermann, does that make you skeptical of any demographic theories about crime rates?

  • 13:24:08

    BUEERMANNNo, it doesn't. I think, again, it just highlights how complicated our society is. There are a lot of moving parts here. And things that we may view in isolation don't exist in the real world that way. They are connected to all kinds of other things. And trying to make those connections and understand those implications is a very complicated process. And I guess it's, you know, what keeps researchers and police chiefs employed on some level. It is a very complicated thing, but we're getting better at it. And I think we're understanding more of this.

  • 13:24:43

    FISHERHere's Joseph in Arlington, Va. Joseph, you're on the air.

  • 13:24:48

    JOSEPHYeah, I was curious if anyone is doing research on the possibility that the decrease in crime statistics is based on people becoming more moral or having better moral training. Things like having stronger families and stronger communities. And also secondly, wasn't it Jeremy Bentham the philosopher who said that the best deterrents to crime is surveillance or detection?

  • 13:25:18

    FISHERWell, David Greenberg, is there anything to the idea that we're becoming better people and more moral people? Certainly there are some indicators such as the rather sharp decline in the divorce rate, but there are, I'm sure, other indicators looking the other way.

  • 13:25:33

    GREENBERGSome historians think there is a long term trend away from the use of violence and interpersonal relations. If you look at the trends over a 500-year period in Europe or in North America there is some indication of this. But it's easy to confuse short run trends such as an uptick of violence in the decade from the early '60s to the early '70s or in the mid '80s, or then the drop in the last 20 years, easy to confuse that with a long term trend. If there is a long term trend it's probably a very gradual one and easily obscured by the short term upticks and downticks that we don't really understand right now.

  • 13:26:19

    FISHERAnd Jim Bueermann, tell us a little bit about the federal initiative called smart policing. What is it and how does it fit in with our current theories or thinking about declining crime?

  • 13:26:31

    BUEERMANNThe smart policing initiative from the U.S. Department of Justice is aimed at helping police departments and sheriff's departments learn how to better analyze their data and connect the evidence about what works to control crime and disorder to their processes. And so there are a multitude of sites being funded around the United States right now. And there's an effort to try to bring the results and the knowledge that those sites are generating into one place and create new learning for police departments.

  • 13:27:03

    GREENBERGSo it's a very thoughtful approach to trying to identify those levers, if you will, that we can pull within society and within police departments to be more effective and more efficient in our use of the public tax dollars.

  • 13:27:20

    FISHERJim Bueermannis president of the Police Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that provides police departments with research and technical assistance. And David Greenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University. Thank you both for joining us. When we come back after a short break we will talk about the clash in the Caribbean, a crazy story in which a world trade organization is actually telling another nation to sell pirated movies in the United States. That's coming up after a break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher.

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