Bringing “Broken Windows” to Street Safety: Bratton Talks Traffic at Forum

Bill Bratton speaks with the press before this morning's event on NYPD's traffic enforcement. Photo: Transportation Alternatives
Bill Bratton speaks with the press before this morning’s event on NYPD’s traffic enforcement. Photo: Transportation Alternatives

At a Transportation Alternatives forum this morning on reforming the agency’s approach to traffic enforcement, former NYPD commissioner (and current contender for his old job) Bill Bratton said street safety deserves more attention from the police. The former chief was followed by a panel discussion featuring one of the creators of the “broken windows” theory of policing Bratton is credited with executing, who argued that the approach should also be applied to traffic violence.

With speculation swirling about Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s pick for police commissioner, pressure is mounting from street safety advocates who want to see NYPD play a stronger role in reducing crash-related deaths and injuries.

“The Bloomberg administration has spent a significant amount of time and focus on redesigning the streets,” Bratton said. Of police traffic enforcement, he said, “More can be done in this critical area. The time for this issue has come.”

Bratton’s history with traffic enforcement dates to his childhood: He served on his elementary school’s walk-to-school safety patrol, and his first assignment in the Boston Police Department was directing traffic. Bratton spoke highly of aggressive “jaywalking” ticketing in Los Angeles, where he served as police chief, but his emphasis shifted when he began to talk about New York. “One of the great things about this city is that it is so much a walking city. Similar to what occurred in the 90s on crime, more can be done to deal with this issue,” he said. “I’d like to walk the streets and ride the streets on a bicycle on occasion…I don’t feel comfortable riding a bicycle on the city streets.”

“We now know precisely which modern street designs work to reduce death and injury,” Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White said, mentioning protected bike lanes, pedestrian islands, increased crossing time, and curb extensions. “Our next DOT commissioner needs to make safely-designed streets the rule, not the exception,” he said. “If that is what the DOT is doing differently to achieve Vision Zero, what is the NYPD going to do to achieve Vision Zero?”

White then pointed to infractions like speeding and failure to yield, which are top contributors to fatal crashes. “These violations are not meaningfully enforced today in New York City,” he said. “We’re not making progress anymore. Traffic injuries and fatalities were going down, but they’ve plateaued.”

After Bratton’s remarks, members of the panel spoke about how the “broken windows” theory of policing can be applied to improve traffic safety. “Bad driving is a crime,” said Dr. George Kelling, who is credited with developing the broken windows approach in the 1980s. “The focus is not to arrest people after they’ve committed offenses. We want to stop the next speeding event,” he said. “We can identify people who are chronically bad drivers and who are criminal in doing so.”

Richard Retting, director of traffic safety at Sam Schwartz Engineering, said there are also demographics that are more likely to drive recklessly: 80 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes are men, he said, and young males are particularly risky drivers.

Bill Bratton. Photo: Transportation Alternatives
Bill Bratton. Photo: Transportation Alternatives

An additional benefit of increased traffic enforcement is that it can offer an entrée for police to crack down on other types of crimes. “Not all bad drivers are criminals, but a lot of criminals are bad drivers,” Kelling said. Earlier this month, in fact, NYPD discovered a large cache of cocaine during a traffic stop in East Williamsburg. A similar dynamic was at play when police began to crack down on subway farebeaters decades ago, Kelling said: One in 10 turnstile jumpers was either wanted on a warrant or carrying an illegal weapon.

Before the plan to crack down on farebeaters could see results, Kelling said, commitment from police and political leadership was required. “We couldn’t get any white shirts down in the subway,” he said, referring to NYPD brass. “They all had their cars; they wouldn’t ride the subway.” Eventually, he said, a commitment from then-chief Bratton helped push the program to success.

“I like it when police are having contact with citizens,” said Kelling, who told Streetsblog after the event that he came to see in the past decade how “broken windows” could be applied to traffic safety. “The thing that happened when we put police officers in cars is that they lost contact with the community, and in some respects we became the enemy of the communities, which seems to be a struggle here right now.”

“No campaign will succeed unless you have buy-in from the top and across the board,” said Dr. Lorna Thorpe, a CUNY epidemiologist who led a multi-agency study of cyclist injuries and fatalities [PDF], adding that transportation, health, and police agency heads and deputies must be committed to Vision Zero if the mayor’s office wants it to succeed.

“The primary responsibility rests with the boss of New York City and that is the Mayor-elect, Bill de Blasio,” White said. White added that NYPD’s TrafficStat meetings used to include advocates and staff from outside the police and transportation departments. “Those meetings are no longer public. They’ve not been public for many years,” he said.

Panelists agreed that data about crashes, investigations, and enforcement must be accessible to advocates and the public. “There’s very little data that police have that should not be shared with the public,” Kelling said. “As a general rule, the more you share the data, the better off you are especially in developing partners.”

After the event, Public Advocate-elect Letitia James said she was alarmed by the NYPD’s refusal to open its meetings and data sets. “What was really disturbing to me is that we do not open certain meetings to the public and that data is not available,” she said. “I believe that NYPD obviously should provide their data to the public so we can reduce these incidents.”

The biggest change that needs to take place, however, is cultural. “Juries have a hard time convicting criminal drivers if they identify with the driver,” said Manhattan Institute fellow Nicole Gelinas. “That can change.” Gelinas pointed to a recent Democratic mayoral debate where the candidates laughed about texting while driving. “They treated it as a joke. I can’t imagine any of them would ever admit to drinking and driving, and if they had, it probably would’ve disqualified them from the race,” she said, noting that drunk driving used to be a socially acceptable behavior.

The consequences of dangerous driving are personal. At the end of the forum, moderator Errol Louis called on Mary Beth Kelly, who lost her husband to a reckless truck driver. “I know there are other people in the room who have lost people on the streets,” she said. “You imagine — if you weren’t with them — what that was like, for the rest of your lives.”

  • Bolwerk

    I want to bring some broken windows the car alarm going off outside my window, since the idiots in the NYPD won’t do their job and tow it.

  • Ian Turner

    It is meaningless to say that “80 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes are men” without knowing what percent of drivers in general are men. I’ve heard that nationwide men drive some 74% more than women.

  • Bronxite

    It’s frustrating how the NYPD tolerates dangerous crimes like speeding and reckless driving which cost more lives than most other behaviors. A criminal driver puts the public at risk. Why does this city fail to correct this public health problem? Why do we tolerate this? What does it take?

    Street redesigns, education, camera and officer enforcement including stiff penalties is necessary! We need to kill this dangerous driving culture that proliferates in NYC.

  • Eileen

    Very interesting…though I’m sitting here wondering how Kelling can, on the one hand, say, “Bad driving is a crime…” and on the other “Not all bad drivers are criminals…”. I realize that what he means is, “Not all bad drivers commit crimes other than bad driving” and/or “Not all bad driving rises to the level of a crime,” and perhaps we’re not getting the full context, but it’s depressing when people almost get it “right” but not quite. We still seem unwilling as a society to acknowledge and confront the potential for violence in driving.

  • a NYC epi

    LORNA Thorpe, not Lena! Please correct your text.

  • psw


    it’s in the DOT’s amazing ped safety report, released last year. ped safety report and action plan

  • psw

    calling underpaid civil servants– many of whom are with the program to change NYPD culture– ‘idiots’ doesn’t really move the ball forward. read some Honku and channel your rage to something productive

  • Bolwerk

    If you don’t recognize that police are generally selected BECAUSE they’re idiots, your odds of survival might very well be stunted.

    And the six figures they get after a few years on the force is hardly what I’d call under paid.

  • Mark Walker

    “The thing that happened when we put police officers in cars is that they lost contact with the community, and in some respects we became the enemy of the communities, which seems to be a struggle here right now.” Bingo. Thank you, Dr. Kelling.

  • NYFM

    Bratton is right. Enforce the speed limits. That is the surest way to protect lives. Bloomberg and the DOT had their priorities backwards: Protected bike lanes everywhere is an expensive fantasy world solution. Enforcing traffic laws on every street that exists today is the, cheapest, easiest, and best way forward. That they chose not to make speeding a priority makes them cowards in my eyes. And too many people are dead because of it.

  • Ari_FS

    Enforcing traffic laws may be the easiest, but it can be temporary. Physical infrastructure (protected bike lanes, ped islands, CitiBike) are more permanent.

    We need both.

  • Joe R.

    In a city like New York, speed limit enforcement needs to be automated to be meaningful. First off, there aren’t enough patrol cars to enforce speed limits beyond a handful of locations. That means speeders have a very low probability of being caught, even if we devote 100 times more police to speeding enforcement. Second, catching speeders in a dense, urban environment causes more problems than it solves. It’s often less harmful letting the guy who just flew by at 55 mph continue rather than driving 80 or 90 to catch him within a few blocks.

    Speed cameras, with or without infrastructure changes, take all that out of the equation. We can install as many speed cameras as necessary to make sure speeding motorists have a high probability of being caught. Unfortunately, we need Albany’s approval for that.

    If we’re going to use police to enforce traffic laws, I want failure to yield to be given the highest priority. This kills many people. It’s a relatively easy violation to enforce in that it doesn’t involve high-speed chases. Even an officer on foot can stop and ticket a motor vehicle for failure to yield.

  • Joe R.

    Police can retire at half pay after 20 years on the force. And the pay isn’t half bad compared to a lot of other jobs.

    I might have used “storm troopers” or “occupation force” instead of “idiots” but any of these three, or sometimes all three, are a fairly accurate description. A have a cousin who is usually pro-police who can’t stand the NYPD. Coming from him, that says a lot. I’m pro-police myself, willing to get them the benefit of the doubt in many situations, but I’m no fan of the NYPD. They’ve rightfully earned the disrespect they’ve gotten on this site, and on many others.

  • Sabina

    Thanks for bringing that report to my attention! It’s great!

  • Ian Turner

    That’s just vehicle registrations, which has very little to do with driving behavior.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s better that police have high pay. It reduces corruption. It just so happens they are well paid.

    The problem is the police force has gotten so big that it has become a political force in its own right, one capable of extracting deference from politicians and courts, and that is very bad for democracy and human rights. A cop got away with punching a judge in the face last year. That’s pretty fucked up.

  • Steve Faust

    DOT doesn’t enforce speed limits, nor other moving traffic violations. That’s NYPD’s mandate. So it’s Bloomberg’s failure to manage Ray Kelly’s priorities that’s at the root of the problem.

    DOT has done the engineering to encourage traffic safety, but it will take the NYPD coordinating at all levels, from beat cops, through white shirted brass to the top staff, to make anything good happen.

  • WoodyinNYC

    The failure that is noise pollution: A few years back it was revealed that the Number One quality of life complaint to 311 was about noise. Well, so what. Nobody did nuthin about noise.

    Noise is car alarms and cars honking that harm the city 24/7.

    Honking a car horn, as practiced in NYC, is an assault. The victims are all of us within earshot of the rude loudness. The offenders don’t share in their own noise because they’re insulated in their cars, taxies, and trucks. Their motive is usually either expressing frustration like a 2-year-old brat, or using the horn to bellow, “Get out of my way!” Neither are worthy uses, and both should be banned.

    Let’s ban all use of car horns. If you’re driving 20 miles an hour you should never need a car horn.

    Some cultural change would be required. But if Switzerland can do it, we can do it. The action would be like Ed Koch pushing the pooper-scooper law thru. A city-changing break-thru. If de Blasio could stop useless assaults-by-horn, he’d live in the pages of NYC history.

  • WoodyinNYC

    Speeding, reckless driving, and drunk driving are very common activities of the police themselves.

    Now shut up and show your papers. LOL.

  • @WoodyInNYC – The #1 and #2 quality of life complaints are consistently honking and car alarms. Bloomberg responded to this by going after Mister Softee.

  • RIght of Way did some groundbreaking studies some years back, with some of the most thorough demographic cross-checking I’ve seen in transportation studies. One study covered car/bike fatalities, the other, car/ped fatalities. After correcting for bias in police reports, it emerged that the drivers who kill trend towards the privileged. The people killed, however, closely match the city’s demographics.

  • WoodyinNYC

    To be fair, he also sent the police after bars where young people were dancing without a payoff, er, a permit

  • ? I would certainly expect Bratton and Kelling to promote “broken windows” as a success, but social science is not at all conclusive about it. The implementation of these ideas by both Bratton and Kelly — and, lest we forget, Kerik — were disprortionately targeted towards minorities and the poor in both NYC and LA. My concern is that adapting these notions to traffic deaths would take the form of more Driving While Black pretext stops, perversely credited to the livable cities movement.

    I might be extra-skeptical since San Francisco police recently hospitalized an innocent black man on the pretext that he rode his bike on a sidewalk. (This “sidewalk” was on private property and was basically the path from a private road to his front door.)

  • antilutron

    Honking the horn on residential blocks by cabs and people as a door bell is just pandemic in some areas. Maybe targeting residential areas first for enforcement of the noise ordinance would be a good start. I have a nieghbor who believes it’s her right to blast her horn at any time of the night or day, she says that’s what the horn is for “to call people’s attention.”


Bill Bratton Will Be the Police Chief Tasked With Implementing Vision Zero

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has selected Bill Bratton to serve as New York City’s next police commissioner. Bratton occupied the same post from 1994 to 1996 under the Giuliani administration and is credited with pioneering data-driven policing techniques. After Bratton left, one of the innovations his deputies introduced was TrafficStat, a system that tracked crash […]

Bratton: NYPD Will Devote “Intensive Focus” to Traffic Violence

At a press conference this afternoon for the ceremonial swearing in of Bill Bratton as police commissioner, Mayor Bill de Blasio took the microphone to express his administration’s commitment to its Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities within ten years. Bratton followed up with more remarks about how the department will prioritize street safety, saying NYPD […]

No Vision Zero Specifics in Proposed NYPD Budget

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says NYPD is committed to Vision Zero, but the initiative to eliminate traffic deaths is not mentioned in the department’s proposed budget, and it’s not clear how the resources Bratton plans to dedicate to its implementation will be adequate to significantly reduce motorist violence. “Safer streets must also mean safer roadways for pedestrians, bicyclists, […]

TA Outlines a Traffic Enforcement Strategy as NYPD Feels the Heat

Following up on its report highlighting NYPD’s lack of meaningful traffic enforcement and a street safety forum featuring former police commissioner Bill Bratton, Transportation Alternatives released a report yesterday [PDF] outlining case studies of effective traffic enforcement. The report gives Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his next police commissioner a broad strategy to help achieve de Blasio’s […]

Fight Street Crime With Speed Bumps and Crosswalks

In Gabe Klein’s exit interview with Chicago Mag, the outgoing transportation commissioner predicted that in the next few years, cities will be paying more attention to the correlation between lawbreaking by drivers and other kinds of crime. “I think it’s a broken windows effect,” Klein said. “If you get control of the traffic crime, I […]