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New York City's Subway

Friday, September 1, 1995

For years litter, graffiti, vagrants, and panhandlers had been turning New York City's subway into a vaguely sinister netherworld. The transit agency's first reaction to this problem was standard public-sector misjudgment: Add more "inputs." Additional police officers were assigned to patrol the transit system. The results were unimpressive, and riders remained frightened.

In the mid-1980s, David Gunn, the new transit authority president, decided to wage a war on the graffiti that covered nearly every square foot of every city subway car. Vast amounts of time and money had already been invested in increasing patrols and surveillance to reduce graffiti -- to no avail. Regardless of how many "taggers" were caught, there were always more. The overburdened courts never gave taggers more than stern lectures.

A deeper analysis of the graffiti problem revealed that taggers got a thrill from viewing their markings on future trips. Denied the satisfaction of beholding their "art," Gunn figured, many taggers would simply stop. He made the removal of graffiti from subway cars a top priority. The strategy worked. On May 12, 1989, five years after the launch of the Clean Car Program, the last of the graffiti-covered cars was removed from service. The Big Apple's notorious subway cars were among the cleanest in the world.

But removing the graffiti only solved part of the problem. New Yorkers still feared the disorderly people who always seemed to be hanging around the subway.

In 1990, the city hired William Bratton (now the city's police commissioner) as the new chief of transit police. "We understood early on that the problems of crime, disorder, and fare evasion were deeply interrelated," Bratton says, "and that therefore we would have to form a coherent strategy to deal with them." Bratton discovered that fare-jumpers not only cost the transit system more than $120 million a year in income, but also committed much of the crime and unruly behavior in the subway. He organized plainclothes "sweep teams" of four to six officers to catch fare-evaders. Says Bratton, "The sweeps produced some interesting results. One of every six fare-evaders we stopped either was carrying a weapon or was wanted for another crime on an outstanding warrant. That was an incredibly high statistic, and it made us realize that by fighting fare evasion, we were also making an impact on crime."

At the same time, Bratton set out to reduce the intimidating behavior of panhandlers and homeless people in the subways. Monthly ejections from the subway went from 2,000 to 16,000. In Bratton's first two years, the number of felonies in the subway fell 30 percent.