Crime fighting with social science

Wednesday May 16, 2012


One bright police official in a large eastern city introduced a number of counter-intuitive concepts that turned crime literally upside-down. He had willing cooperation from the mayor, the police commissioner, the police union and the rank and file cops.

Results: Subway robberies reduced from 1,200/year to 12/year. Murder plummeted 50 percent. Overall crime dropped 39 percent.

He was one of a kind, this "dandy," as some called him. The man arrived at work immaculately attired, as if he was on his way to a theater to play an eccentric, middle-aged oil baron of yesteryear. He wore bow ties, Holmberg hats and two-tone shoes with white spats (The network TV series, "The District," was patterned on him).


John (Jack) Maple was only 49 when he died. He had achieved world-wide fame as New York City’s deputy police commissioner.

An avid reader, in 1982 an article by two well known social scientists caught his eye. The scientists challenged universally accepted policing theories. They determined that major crimes would be substantially lessened if quality of life crimes were addressed in a serious campaign.

They used as an example of quality of life crimes, the effect unrepaired broken windows have in urban neighborhoods.

The authors reasoned that major crimes would diminish if quality of life crime authors were lessened. The article is called "Broken Windows," a name that epitomizes the concept.

Two books followed. The first, also called, "Broken Windows," explores Maple’s strategies. The second, written by Jack Maple with Chris Mitchell, "The Crime Fighter

Putting The Bad Guys Out of Business," is a primer on his theories and policing concept

One of Jack Maple’s core strategies is to have police forsake their patrol cars and walk their beats. Police learn who is who in neighborhoods and the police presence provides sense of safety discourages crime. Also, schedule more police during evening/night hours (times of increased crime), fewer police during daylight when people abound. Finally, develop real time indolence on crimes in progress together with visual points of activity.

Maple had concise street and road maps of his city to his walls similar to army battlefield headquarters. His office became his intelligence and command center. He called this operation COMSTAT. The COMSTAT operation also makes shift commanders more responsible for activities in their areas.


Maple initially put the theory into practice in New York City, which was rife with crime. At their request, he did the same for Boston, Newark, Los Angeles, New Orleans and a number of foreign cities. All experienced major reductions in crime, petty and serious.

"The theory defines a normal community setting and the effect of urban disorder and vandalism as additional crime and anti-social behavior," wrote Publisher’s Weekly. "[It] notes that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime."

Maple started his police career as a beat Transit System subway cop (you can’t get any lower than that), rose to detective and finally deputy commissioner of police.

Peter Martin is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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