How could little things create Tipping Points for major happenings like the abrupt decline in New York crime rate in the 1990’s? How can we analyze and make use of such Tipping Points in our lives and our career?
Let us look at what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his masterpiece ‘The Tipping Point’ about the Broken Windows theory and to what extent it’s vital to start with the little things in order to achieve the big things!
Broken Windows was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes:
In the mid-1980s Kelling was hired by the New York Transit Authority as a consultant, and he urged them to put the Broken Windows theory into practice. They obliged, bringing in a new subway director by the name of David Gunn to oversee a multibillion-dollar rebuilding of the subway system. Many subway advocates, at the time, told Gunn not to worry about graffiti, to focus on the larger questions of crime and subway reliability, and it seemed like reasonable advice. Worrying about graffiti at a time when the entire system was close to collapse seems as pointless as scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it headed toward the icebergs. But Gunn insisted. “The graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system,” he says. “When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti. Without winning that battle, all the management reforms and physical changes just weren’t going to happen. We were about to put out new trains that were worth about ten million bucks apiece, and unless we did something to protect them, we knew just what would happen. They would last one day and then they would be vandalized.” Gunn began experimenting with new techniques to clean off the paint. On stainless-steel cars, solvents were used. On the painted cars, the graffiti were simply painted over. Gunn made it a rule that there should be no retreat, that once a car was “reclaimed” it should never be allowed to be vandalized again. “We were religious about it,” Gunn said. At the end of the number one line in the Bronx, where the trains stop before turning around and going back to Manhattan, Gunn set up a cleaning station. If a car came in with graffiti, the graffiti had to be removed during the changeover, or the car was removed from service. “Dirty” cars, which hadn’t yet been cleansed of graffiti, were never to be mixed with “clean” cars. The idea was to send an unambiguous message to the vandals themselves.
Gunn’s graffiti cleanup took from 1984 to 1990. At that point, the Transit Authority hired William Bratton to head the transit police, and the second stage of the reclamation of the subway system began. Bratton was, like Gunn, a disciple of Broken Windows. He describes Kelling, in fact, as his intellectual mentor. And so his first step as police chief was as seemingly quixotic as Gunn’s. With felonies – serious crimes – on the subway system at an all-time high, Bratton decided to crack down on farebeating. Why? Because he believed that, like graffiti, farebeating could be a signal, a small expression of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. An estimated 170,000 people a day were entering the system, by one route or another, without paying a token. This farebeating cost the Transit Authority $150 million in lost revenue per year. Some were kids, who simply jumped over the turnstiles. Others would lean backward on the turnstiles and force their way through. And once one or two or three people began cheating the system, other people – who might never otherwise have considered evading the law – would join in, reasoning that if some people weren’t going to pay, they shouldn’t either, and the problem would snowball. The problem was exacerbated by the fact fare-beating was not easy to fight. Because there was only $1.25 at stake, the transit police didn’t feel it was worth their time to pursue it, particularly when there were plenty of more serious crimes happening down on the platform and in the trains.
Bratton is a colorful, charismatic man, a born leader, and he quickly made his presence felt. His wife stayed behind in Boston, so he was free to work long hours, and he would roam the city on the subway at night, getting a sense of what the problems were and how best to fight them. First, he picked stations where fare-beating was the biggest problem, and put as many as ten policemen in plainclothes at the turnstiles. The team would nab farebeaters one by one, handcuff them, and leave them standing, in a daisy chain, on the platform until they had a “full catch.” The idea was to signal, as publicly as possible, that the transit police were now serious about cracking down on fare-beaters. Bratton also insisted that a check be run on all those arrested. Sure enough, one out of seven arrestees had an outstanding warrant for a previous crime, and one out of twenty was carrying a weapon of some sort. Suddenly it wasn’t hard to convince police officers that tackling fare-beating made sense. “For the cops it was a bonanza,” Bratton writes. “Every arrest was like opening a box of Cracker Jack. What kind of toy am I going to get? Got a gun? Got a knife? Got a warrant? Do we have a murderer here? . . . After a while the bad guys wised up and began to leave their weapons home and pay their fares.” Under Bratton, the number of ejections from subway stations – for drunkenness, or improper behavior – tripled within his first few months in office. Arrests for misdemeanors, for the kind of minor offenses that had gone unnoticed in the past, went up fivefold between 1990 and 1994. Bratton turned the transit police into an organization focused on infractions, on the details of life underground.
After the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor of New York in 1994, Bratton was appointed head of the New York City Police Department, and he applied the same strategies to the city at large. He instructed his officers to crack down on quality-of-life crimes: on the “squeegee men” who came up to drivers at New York City intersections and demanded money for washing car windows, for example, and on all the other above-ground equivalents of turnstile-jumping and graffiti. “Previous police administration had been handcuffed by restrictions,” Bratton says. “We took the handcuffs off [the police and put them on the criminals]. We stepped up enforcement of the laws against public drunkenness and public urination and arrested repeat violators, including those who threw empty bottles on the street or were involved in even relatively minor damage to property. . . . If you peed in the street, you were going to jail.” When crime began to fall in the city – as quickly and dramatically as it had in the subways – Bratton and Giuliani pointed to the same cause. Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes, they said, were Tipping Points for violent crime.