A New Way to Fight Crime

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1994

In 1982, social scientists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson published an article arguing that speedy public reaction to petty disorders like a broken window could head off more serious crimes—which often spike when perpetrators get the sense that no one is paying attention. With support from the Olin Foundation and other donors, this argument was developed further at the Manhattan Institute (where Kelling became a senior fellow), and then empirical studies showed the theory to be accurate.

One of those listening was Rudolph Giuliani. When he became New York City mayor in 1994 he and police commissioner William Bratton rolled out a radically different policing style, cracking down on small crimes like subway fare jumping and aggressive panhandling, pushing officers out onto streets, and using detailed crime data to allocate police resources and hold precinct commanders accountable. Within five years, major crimes in New York were cut in half (homicides dropped by two thirds), and those declines continued for years thereafter. The new policing techniques were copied in many other cities, and the safety and savor of urban life in America was dramatically changed for the better.