"Taking Back the Subway for the People of New York"

The 1992 New York City Transit Police report reflects a department in the process of operationalizing Broken Windows theory, arguing that its officers ought to perform roles of crime prevention, order-maintenance, and behavioral policing.

The 1992 strategic report published by the New York City Transit Police, “Taking Back the Subway for the People of New York,” details the organization’s vision for the subsequent decade, reflecting a police department transforming to adopt Broken Windows theory and community policing models. The New York City Transit Police was established to patrol the city’s subways in 1953 and was operational until 1995, when under Mayor Rudy Giuliani it was integrated into the New York City Police Department. The 1992 report is written in response to increases in reported subway crime at the beginning of the decade. According to the authors, these increases in crime correlated with a climate of public fear concerning the environments of the subway. Telling the story of a public on the precipice of chaos, the strategy operationalizes Broken Windows theory, established in Kelling and Wilson’s article “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” a decade earlier, by arguing that police officers should perform roles of crime prevention, order-maintenance, and behavioral policing.

By the logic of the report, if civilians are fearful of the subway, they will stop riding — meaning that revenues will decline, subways eventually will stop running, and quality of life in New York City will deteriorate. This purported slippery slope into chaos is underscored by a description of the subway’s users as a public at the tipping point: law-abiding civilians, according to the authors, might be coerced into petty crimes like fare evasion by virtue of seeing them committed, and eventually into more serious crimes as well. The response, in the model of Broken Windows theory and community policing, is that police responsibility should be expanded to include crime prevention and order-maintenance, instead of simply responding to crimes in progress. To perform this role, the presence of police would be felt through their strategic deployment en masse and on foot. Petty crimes, including fare evasion, would be aggressively prosecuted to send a message that no crimes whatsoever would be tolerated.

Throughout the report, the descriptions of petty subway crime reflect the severity with which it will be policed. The report describes youth felons as “career criminals,” imagines more aggressively ejecting the homeless from the subways onto city streets, and describes the subway as representing tactical advantages for policing and absolute surveillance over the semi-public spaces above ground. The report marks an organizational turn toward disciplinary punishment and policing of a rule-breaking public, without referring to underlying reasons for crime or disorder.

Entry Author
Buell Center (sz2950)