Beyond Broken Windows

The subways were once the epicenter of crime in New York City, but Joe Fox has made them safer. Can he repeat this success above ground?

edans/Flickr/The Atlantic

In the world of NYPD Chief Joseph Fox—head of Transit, guardian of the city’s subways, career cop, longtime acolyte of Commissioner Bill Bratton (himself a former Chief of Transit way, way back in the day), and current benevolent believer in and enforcer of Bratton’s quality-of-life policing philosophy, a.k.a., Broken Windows—the gun collar is the pièce de résistance. You make a stop, you come up with a loaded gun. If policing were deer hunting, he notes, it’s like bagging the eight-pointer. “It’s huge,” Fox says. It means respect; it takes talent. It’s the crux of the job: cleaning up communities. Another gun off the street.

In the spring of 1986, in a very different city from the one New Yorkers live in today—1,582 homicides that year, compared to 333 in 2013—Fox pulled off one of his very favorite gun collars. At the time, he was an anti-crime sergeant in the 61st Precinct in South Brooklyn, which stretches from Sheepshead Bay to Gerritsen. “It may not be the tranquility of a Trappist Monastery on Christmas Eve, but it’s not exactly Beirut either,” one cop described the precinct in the ‘80s. A place where you had to work for collars, though they were there to be had. This was pre-Bratton, “pre-’94,” in Fox’s parlance. Much less rhyme or reason to crime prevention than there is now, is the implication. But a string of incidents had occurred in the area, reports of a heavyset man carrying a nine-millimeter, robbing doctors and dentists’ offices. So Joe Fox decides to hit the street. He says to his partner, “I’m gonna get the fat man.”

It was a routine car stop—a well-known perp in the driver’s seat, smalltime, a guy the cops would talk to from time to time. Call him Jim. Another man on the passenger’s side. Jim’s license is suspended, so Fox and his partner pull him over for a little chat. The passenger’s side door opens, and the other man starts walking away. Casual-like, no big deal. “Whoa. Where you going?” says Fox, and the man turns around—he’s rather large—and shrugs his shoulders. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. He walks back to the car. And here’s the thing that Joe Fox will never forget, the clinching detail—he has a lollipop dangling from his mouth. He’s that casual—he never takes the lollipop out. “This is Joe Fox,” Jim says as the man approaches the car, and Fox extends his hand. The heavyset man is wearing a leather jacket, and it’s open, waving a little, flapping around. Joe Fox takes a look at the man’s belt—he’s still holding his right hand, he never lets the perp go, and says, “Hey, you got anything?” And the leather jacket flaps open a little more, and then it’s no longer hypothetical. “Gun, gun, gun,” Fox shouts, and with his free hand he disarms the suspect, and moments later the perps are handcuffed in the back of the squad car.

Nearly 30 years later, Joe Fox has shot up the ranks from sergeant to commanding officer of Patrol Borough Brooklyn South, to Chief of Transit, three full stars, reporting to Bratton. This early gun collar, revisited many years later, cements itself at the center of Fox’s policing philosophy. First of all, you have to have some plan when you go out to prevent crime; secondly, it’s often the little things that lead to the big things. It’s a virtuous circle, too, because cleaning up the little things makes the community a better place, and then there are fewer little things, and fewer big things. And better communities are what it’s all about, anyway. That’s how Fox operates. It’s what he’s been doing for years.

And the fat man? Fox pulls his arrest records up from time to time, to keep an eye on him. “His last one was 1990, I think he’s behaving himself,” he says.  “I rehabilitated him,” Fox jokes. “The lollipop, I’ll always remember the lollipop.”

* * *

You might say that Joe Fox was born to be a cop. His father was one, and at five, six, seven, Fox would delight family members with his usual routine:

Q: Where’s your daddy work?

A: My daddy doesn’t work.  He’s a cop.

Everybody would laugh. Police work seemed natural to him, the obvious thing for a father to do. “People came to him for advice, with his eighth grade education,” Fox says. “If somebody was having a problem with their child, was using drugs, they came to him. When somebody had a car accident, they came to him.”

Joe Fox, pictured in his office (Mark Chiusano)

Fox became a cop in 1981, in the days of “apologist policing,” as Fox calls it. After decades of corruption and commissions, the department was under a tight leash that felt overly restrictive to a young cop like Fox. In their history of the department, NYPD: A City and its Police, James Lardner and Thomas Repetto describe a police force whose motto was nearly “thou shalt not police”: “Uniformed cops were discouraged from contact with drug dealers, saloonkeepers, and other so-called corruption hazards.” Beat cops in particular, Fox remembers, shied away from low-level drug collars. In precincts across the city, conscientious cops found their collars haphazardly, the way Fox found the fat man in the Six-One. At the same time, crime continued to rise. The corruption-wary department was “unable to cope with the crime, the drugs, and the violence that had spread across the city in the 1970s and ’80s,” write Lardner and Repetto. “New York, in the eyes of many police commanders, had become a Third World city where crime could not be suppressed, only contained.”

That all changed in 1994. In fact, it had been changing earlier, including slow attempts at reforms like community policing, but most explicitly since 1990 when Bratton took over the Transit Police, at that time a separate force from the NYPD. In 1990, the subways were horrible. There were 48 serious felonies a day in the transit system. (Today there are under ten.) In the city at large, there had been a 67 percent increase in robberies between 1987 and 1990: 10 percent of those robberies occurred in the subway. Bratton started from the bottom. He took the train with cops, talked to them, heard about their complaints. Station agents too. Regular cops carried revolvers; Bratton got his transit police nine-millimeter semi-automatics, equivalent to the criminals they were facing. “Morale went through the roof at transit,” Fox remembers. And, famously, Bratton and his bulldog lieutenant, Jack Maple, started changing the way policing in the subway was conducted. With pin maps of the subway system and its robberies—“Charts of the Future,” Maple called them—crime fell drastically. “There was this turnaround in the subways,” Fox remembers. “And Commissioner Bratton has said, and I believe it’s true, that to a great extent the subway system is almost a signature or a face of the city.”

The trains were the city’s lifeblood: Millions of riders a day, the arteries of the five boroughs, pumping in and out. It’s not surprising that the dominant images of that bad, pre-’94 New York are always the subway graffiti, the fare-beaters. Bratton got rid of that. By the time Compstat and Giuliani and the great fall in reported crime rates came—12 percent in ’94, then 14 percent the next year, then 16 the next—the policy had gotten a trial run in the transit system. Bratton stopped the windows from breaking in the subway. Then he went and did it above ground.

* * *

Broken Windows is the policing philosophy attributed to George Kelling and James Wilson, outlined in an Atlantic article in March of 1982. The article advanced the community-level link between disorder and crime, “in a kind of developmental sequence.” In the most famous passage, the authors declare, “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken… [O]ne unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

The theory is grounded in the idea of community controls. “The essence of the police role in maintaining order,” Kelling and Wilson wrote, “is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.” These self-reinforcing communities must be protected and built at almost any cost, a philosophy that can be traced back to Jane Jacobs’s classic work of sociology, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (Businessmen, she wrote, “hate broken windows and holdups; they hate having customers made nervous about safety.”) More iconically, Jacobs’s book is a love letter to the ballet of the city street, the cleansing powers of a busy, bustling, and therefore safe sidewalk, which Jacobs spent a lifetime protecting from the forces of bad planning in city government and Robert Moses. This sense of order, which Jacobs describes seeing in vivid detail in her neighborhood of Greenwich Village, is not “a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but … an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”

This vision of community appeals to Joe Fox. Early in his career, neighborhood thugs were harassing the owner of a Chinese restaurant, Dynasty, near the Flatbush Nostrand Junction; Fox relocated an entire precinct to hold daily meetings in the restaurant, and soon the harassment stopped. The restaurant owner, to this day, graces Fox’s office with lunch spreads. At Transit, Fox started a series of “Meet Your Police” events where whole transit precincts would open up at a station, introducing themselves and offering anticrime tips and laptop registrations. As a borough commander, he taught COs to hold community meetings in human terms, to say, “We had five robberies last year compared to eight, and there’s one in particular I’d like to share with you. A mail carrier was robbed while he was working.” Then explain what you did about it: Talked to the postal workers themselves, put more cops on the street. The community would become active in policing themselves: “Please watch out for your mail carriers,” Fox would exhort.  “When you see them walking down the street please take another minute to look out the window and see if there’s anything on the block, and if you see anything suspicious call 911.”  In this way everyone’s all in it together.

The sense of community extends to the cops themselves, and everyone the chief interacts with. “Ever since he became Chief of Transit, I’ve met him about 50 times,” says P.O. Jonathan Miller. “He’ll pick you out—‘Oh hey, how you doing,’” Miller says, doing a pretty uncanny impression of Fox. “He’s a people person,” said an auxiliary officer at Hoyt Street. A transit cop by the turnstiles at 7th Avenue in Manhattan described Fox’s habit of calling cops who pull big collars, to congratulate them. “He has a way to reach out to all elements of the community and appreciate their brand,” says Richard Green, director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective. Batia Brandel, another Crown Heights community organizer who has worked with Fox for decades, says, “He was never at that time and never now an officer who sits at his desk—constantly in the street and, now, the subways.”

* * *

Fox had perhaps his greatest test of community in 1996 as a deputy inspector in Crown Heights. He’d arrived in the precinct not long after the 1991 Crown Heights riots. “It was tense,” Fox says. “If a black person got involved with anything in the Jewish community,” or vice versa, “the mayor was called, chiefs were called.” Fox was instrumental in organizing the yearly Family Day Picnics, which brought the community together, black and white, for free, kosher and non-kosher food. The picnic continues to this day.

But that May, when a bike was stolen from a child by another child, members of a Hasidic patrol group, thinking they knew who had stolen the bike, went to chase him down. At the assumed house, a struggle ensued between the child’s uncle and two members of the patrol group. The two members were arrested for assaulting the uncle, opening up his head with a radio. The sergeant made the arrest.

That evening, a crowd of Lubavitcher men began forming outside the precinct. “First there was about 20 or 30 of them and then I’d look out my window and there was 50 and then there was 60 and then there was 100 and then there was 200,” Fox says. They were stopping buses, getting disorderly. When the patrol members were transferred to another precinct, the crowd moved to the victim’s house, chanting “No justice, no peace,” Fox says, alluding to and mocking the Al Sharpton chant. Fox made the first collar for trespass when somebody crossed the man’s property line. The arrest enraged the crowd, and they became rowdier, lighting fires in trashcans, throwing bottles at cops, and stopping traffic on Eastern Parkway. Fox turned to another cop, and said, “With the riots—how did we win?” The cop responded that they made arrests. “So I picked up the radio,” Fox says, “and said, ‘All units, anybody acting disorderly, throwing bottles in the streets, setting fires: Make the arrest.”

The disturbances were quelled. The New York Times reported that locals hoped this wasn’t a repeat of 1991, that the neighborhood was moving towards improved race relations. “People here are very good neighbors,” one resident said. The next morning, before going to meet with the press, mayor Guiliani called Fox to City Hall. He took him to a little room off to the side of the Green Room, and said, “Rough night, huh, Inspector?” “Yes, your Honor,” says Fox.  “But it’s important to know that all of those people weren’t from Crown Heights. There were some agitators from Williamsburg. I still loved the community, and it hurt me that this happened.” The mayor used the line in the press conference.

These days, Eastern Parkway looks very different than it used to. New Yorkers live in a different city than the one Fox learned how to protect. Bratton came and went and then returned, but Broken Windows, by whatever name, never stopped. This summer, Broken Windows cascaded into the news again, with the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in Staten Island performing an illegal chokehold. Fox calls Garner’s death while resisting arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes “a tragedy,” but claims that the leap that some have made from Eric Garner to Broken Windows is “absurd.” Garner resisted arrest, Fox says, and his death was due to the tactics of the cops, not a philosophical policy. But some commentators and politicians have pushed back against such arguments, Brooklyn Borough president (and former Transit Police alumnus) Eric Adams among them. “This is a good moment,” Adams has said, “to re-evaluate what comes after ‘broken windows,’ now that the windows are no longer broken.”

Perhaps the most logically and emotionally seductive part of Broken Windows is its emphasis on vicious cycles, on loss by an inch or a mile. Things escalate, and perhaps the greatest fear in a city as large and robust as New York is the fear of losing control. It’s in Fox’s deepest formulations, born of experience in a more chaotic New York. Talking about why drinking on the beach should be enforced to reasonable extent, he says, “When you allow people on the beach, people light fires, kids drink, maybe crimes happen.” The reasoning—and Bratton’s influence—pervades the directives of the Transit department, from a focus on panhandlers and litterers to so-called “subway dancers,” who rattle around train cars performing or cajoling for money, like those squeegee men of old. Fox’s tenure at Transit has been one of doubling down on quality-of-life offenses in the subway in the absence of more serious crimes—and thank goodness for the lack of such crimes, you might say, of course. “If people feel safe in the trains,” Fox says, “they’ll feel safe in the city.”

Chief Fox’s most recent collar—perhaps his last, who knows—took place since he became head of Transit. He missed being out in the field, as he had been in Brooklyn: Seeing cops, keeping tabs on the neighborhoods. So he started doing routes. “We were just riding around,” laughs his longtime driver and assistant, Detective Carol Willis. One day, wearing a windbreaker over his uniform, out in East New York, Fox sees a man trying to sell a manipulated MetroCard to a commuter. He can’t believe it’s happening right in front of him. It’s a classic scam: The perp jams the MetroCard machine and sells MetroCards to riders who otherwise couldn’t get on the train. It’s quality-of-life to a tee. Though Fox was anxious for the collar, he waited for backup, and the cops got there quick enough. “And they were professionals,” Fox says. “‘Come on, come on,’ they said to the perp, ‘let’s do this right.’”

They bring the man in, ID him. Turns out he was wanted for a stabbing. “This guy’s been arrested 64 times at the time, up to about 74 collars by now,” Fox says. There had been a moment, when Fox and the other cops were facing the perp, when the man was totally surrounded, where Fox watched him get stiff for about thirty seconds—when Fox wasn’t sure what he would do. There was this standoff, the common perp and the police chief. But in the end he came quietly.