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New York City's New Top Cop's Broken Windows Background


Now to someone whom William Bratton has called an intellectual mentor. George Kelling, along with James Q. Wilson, introduced the Broken Windows theory that we just heard mentioned. It first appeared in an article in The Atlantic magazine in 1982. It was also around that time that Kelling came to know William Bratton and he's followed his career ever since.

Mr. Kelling, welcome to the program.

GEORGE KELLING: Oh, thank you.

SIEGEL: We speak of Bratton being influenced by Broken Windows. I gather Broken Windows was in part influenced by Bratton.

KELLING: Well, that's true. During the early days of my research into policing, I met a lot with police officers, including Bratton, and discovered that many of them were responding to citizens' demands that police deal with minor offenses as well as the major crimes. And that is, if you met with a citizens group, they were interested in robberies and burglaries, but they would be talking about graffiti, prostitution, youths drinking in parks, those kinds of neighborhood problems that we came later to view as precursors to more serious crime.

SIEGEL: Well, on the most contentious issue of police strategy in New York City, Stop-and-Frisk, Bratton has invoked an interesting analogy, chemotherapy. He's conceding its efficacy and saying it should be used very judiciously and saying that it has sown mistrust with minority communities, certainly. As that tension weighs upon him as police chief, in which direction do think his instincts will draw him - in favor of the efficacy of the tactic or in favor of communities that are deeply offended by it?

KELLING: Well, I think he'll push for a balance between the two. And that is, there is no doubt that it is a powerful tool. And as he described it, analogy with chemotherapy as appropriate, chemotherapy can kill you as well. You have to use these kinds of tools very judiciously. And you have to go to the community and be talking to the community in great detail about what your plans are.

I still remember during the early days in Los Angeles, when a warrant was being served and to serve the warrant they had to break down the door of a house. When they were doing that, citizens from the neighborhood gathered, and you saw the picture of the officers breaking into the house. But you also saw pictures of Bratton going around, talking to the citizens, shaking their hands, explaining what was going on.

That sense of accountability to neighborhoods and communities is something that Bratton was reared on and was going to hold him in good stead.

SIEGEL: When he became police chief in New York two decades ago, the crime rate was very high. Crime rates are low these days. I wonder, how different do you think the job of police commissioner and how different is Bill Bratton today from 20 years ago?

KELLING: Well, first of all, I think Bill Bratton is perhaps somewhat mellowed by some of the experiences that he's had. But I think he is walking into a new world now. The economy has changed; the number of police available that have changed. The nature of the problems have changed. There are demands to deal with traffic, which was not high on anyone's priority list at the time. Technology has changed very dramatically.

SIEGEL: Yeah, he's identified with pins in a map on a wall 20 years ago.


SIEGEL: He's come a long way from that in terms of...

KELLING: A long ways, and interesting enough, he's been one of the leaders in that.

SIEGEL: It's often said that he might have received so much credit for reducing crime in New York City that his presence was no longer desired by Mayor Giuliani, who wanted to get more of that credit himself. I don't know if you accept that explanation. But how has he done in dealing with mayors?

KELLING: Well, his dealing with the two mayors that he did in Los Angeles was very, very successful. I think Bill learned from his original experience in New York City that the mayor is the mayor and the commissioner is the commissioner, and the relationship is established by tradition in law, et cetera.

SIEGEL: You're saying by definition the mayor wins, is what he...

KELLING: That's right.

SIEGEL: ...he learned.

KELLING: That's right. But I think the mayor - both mayors that he worked with their admired his forthrightness and admired his willingness to really commit himself to goals that could be accomplished and communicate those goals to the community and get them accepted by the community.

Added to it, he had to adjust to a very different world in Los Angeles. And they gave one example this morning in the press conference. And that was New York is not a gang city. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has multigenerational gangs that present unique problems. And he had to adapt to that and he did so successfully.

SIEGEL: Mr. Kelling, thanks so much for talking with us today.

KELLING: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: George Kelling, 30 years ago a co-author of the famous Broken Windows article in The Atlantic, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.