‘Broken’ city: How New York forgot the ABCs of public virtue

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We’re living in an upside-down city: Wrong is right. Cops are villains. Criminals are victims. Virtues are vices.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said virtuous behavior (or “excellence,” as he also called it) is a habit we must maintain, rather than something we do once in a while or when it is convenient. A case study in Aristotle’s virtue ethics can be found much closer to home than ancient Greece: New York City in the 1990s and 2000s.

Public safety is a virtue, without which no city can survive. But we have fallen out of the habit of excellence. Our elected officials have stopped encouraging lawful behavior and made it impossible for our police to enforce the laws.

The Broken Windows theory of policing was introduced in 1982 in The Atlantic by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson. It says we need to consistently keep order or we will lose the virtue of public safety. If the first “broken window” goes unfixed, it signals that a neighborhood will tolerate lawlessness and brings greater disorder, fear and crime. Law-abiding citizens will be afraid and will either keep to themselves or move away.

Broken Windows was first adopted in New York City policing in the subways, by William Bratton as Transit Police chief in the early 1990s. Back then, people were afraid to ride the subway because of out-of-control crime and harassment.

The dominant view had been that the subway’s problems with the homeless, fare-beating, graffiti and robbery were separate issues. But Bratton adopted the Broken Windows philosophy, and the transformation of the subways proved they are all one issue: keeping order. When he became NYPD commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, they had a proven model for reducing crime.

The result of applying Broken Windows to citywide law enforcement was dramatic and swift. Bratton became commissioner in 1994. The next year, New York magazine ran a cover story titled “The End of Crime as We Know It.” What followed was a 20-year run of law and order that made us the safest big city in the world.

Yet our leaders have forgotten the lesson. Broken Windows, often mislabeled a “zero-tolerance” policy, has been abandoned in favor of fashionable social-justice slogans. The City Council decriminalized a host of “minor” offenses, just the kind Broken Windows policing had targeted.

On top of that, our jails this year became revolving doors with the end of cash bail, and we have defunded our police and tied their hands. The result has been a 95.8 percent spike in citywide shooting incidents so far in 2020 over 2019. Taxpayers are fleeing.

While Broken Windows theory warns against tolerating disorder, Mayor de Blasio and many of my City Council colleagues have affirmatively chosen to do exactly that via legislation and policy. Their full-throated support for crime over public safety has been enshrined in our laws.

We are back to the “bad old days,” complete with screwdriver stabbings on the subways that Bratton cleaned up decades ago. We no longer stop turnstile jumpers and check them for warrants or illegal weapons.

While other factors may have contributed to the breakdown, the proactive Broken Windows approach to community policing was key: Criminals who commit serious crimes tend to also commit less serious crimes, like turnstile jumping.

In my district, I fight a constant battle to fix “broken windows” as soon as they’re brought to my attention. “Quality of life” issues like graffiti, abandoned cars, noise pollution and littering are all forms of broken windows. Taxpayers in my district shouldn’t be afraid to walk the streets. Budget cuts to the Parks and Sanitation departments have forced me to find creative ways to keep the district clean.

We need to return to the Broken Windows philosophy so our police, elected officials and city agencies work together to restore order and regain control over crime.

For Aristotle, virtue ethics was all about acting to achieve our potential. New York has greater potential than any city in the world. It’s the hometown of “excellence.” We just need to get back in the habit.

Robert Holden represents the 30th District, covering parts of Queens, in the City Council.

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