When he entered office, the city was riddled with crimes both serious (there had been more than 2,000 murders in 1990, the peak year) and petty (people urinating in public or the infamous squeegee men extorting drivers).
Giuliani was inspired by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s 1982 Atlantic story “Broken Windows,” which argued that if authorities maintained “order” by enforcing punishment for small crimes, they would deter more serious violations of the law. As mayor, Giuliani decided to put the broken-windows theory into effect, in concert with CompStat, an innovative data-management system for the police.
“Wilson had a revelation about crime: Focus on the small crimes, such as littering, and keep neighborhoods clean and free of signs of disorder, such as broken windows in a building,” Giuliani explained in City Journal in 2012. “The big idea was this: If the neighborhood looks as if someone is watching and maintaining order, it is far more likely that order will prevail. A neighborhood that is clean and well-ordered sends a signal to criminals and citizens alike.”
One of the first things Giuliani did was go after people who jumped over turnstiles in the subway to avoid paying for rides.
“When the transit cops started arresting people for fare-jumping, previously considered too penny-ante to worry about, they found that fare-jumpers often had rap sheets including more serious crimes,” Michael Tomasky wrote. “When street cops started busting people for selling dime bags, they found the same thing.”
What happened was dramatic. The crime rate began to drop dramatically. Murders went down. New York City underwent a renaissance. Giuliani touted this approach throughout his mayorship. There’s a video on YouTube of him acting with mock apoplexy when asked about prosecuting public urinators late in his tenure.
“If somebody urinates in public, the person is telling you, ‘I’ve got a big problem,’” Giuliani says when he finishes sputtering. “This is what broken-windows theory is all about. If somebody is urinating in public, we’ve got a problem … It may be a minor thing, it may be a serious thing, but you have to deal with it. It is against the law.”
Leaving office didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the theory. At the Republican National Convention in July 2016, Giuliani presented the “Make America Great Again” platform as a sort of broken windows for America.
“I know we can change it, because I did it by changing New York City from the crime capital of America to the safest large city in the United States,” Giuliani said. “What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America.”
When Hillary Clinton attacked stop-and-frisk, the tactic of stopping people (mostly young men of color, in practice) when officers have a “reasonable suspicion” of a crime, Giuliani was outraged. Giuliani argued that this kind of proactive, aggressive police work was essential to keeping crime down.
Lately, however, Giuliani has adopted a different view about proactive police work now that he’s President Trump’s attorney. He’s raged against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, accusing him of being on a fishing expedition, searching for crimes where there aren’t any.
But the most glaring shift has come in recent days. The former Trump fixer Michael Cohen has acknowledged committing campaign-finance crimes as part of an attempt to cover up allegations of affairs with the president. Documents filed by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Giuliani’s stomping grounds before his mayorship, indicate that prosecutors believe Trump was involved in violations of the law.
In response, the president’s defenders, formal and informal, have adopted a new talking point, saying that the crimes Mueller and the SDNY have pursued are “process crimes”—obstruction, lies, and the like but not serious criminal misconduct. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, a staunch defender of and occasional outlet for Giuliani’s tough-on-crime policies, this week blasted Michael Flynn’s prosecution for lying to the FBI as “entrapment.” But Giuliani himself outdid everyone else.
Giuliani has come a long way from “It may be a minor thing … but you have to deal with it. It is against the law” to suggesting that process crimes don’t matter as long as no one gets killed. The old Giuliani would have been concerned that it’s a short slide from petty crimes to, well, standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shooting someone, and not losing voters.
To be sure, broken-windows policing has some convincing critics, and it’s not at all clear that the focus on small offenses is what turned New York’s crime rates around. But Giuliani believes that broken windows made the difference, and so do many other conservatives. In the New York Post on Friday, a columnist—the same one who has complained that law enforcement was overreaching in going after Trump aides—called for a reprise of Giuliani-era fare-jumper crackdowns, citing “Broken Windows.”
The question is why Giuliani and his confederates have decided that prosecuting small-time crimes in New York City, especially among the poor and minorities, is a matter of dire importance and a gateway to more serious criminal behavior but the prospect of “process crimes” by the president, who happens to be wealthy, white, and politically allied with Giuliani, is neither a worrying sign of deeper possible crimes nor even worth prosecutors’ attention.