Watching from afar, I noted a press release from a federal minister talking about a Brisbane suburb. It was headlined: “Making Sunnybank’s streets safer”. How can a place called Sunnybank possibly be unsafe?

But, you know, places can get that way. Or un-get that way. Which is what happened to New York. It got safe.

Recently, I re-watched the still-watchable 1979 film The Warriors, about a New York gang’s attempt to get home to Coney Island by crossing from the Bronx through the wilderness of Manhattan.

Some of the scenes are shot around the subways where I live, in New York’s sedate, family-friendly Upper West.

It’s pretty clear the subway depictions in that film are not sets. They’re the real thing. And they look bad, covered in graffiti and overrun with creeps. Most of all, they look lonely and un-policed. That’s how it was.

People didn’t risk their lives walking about the same places where nowadays the greatest danger is being knee-capped by a wayward pram. It is really very difficult to picture how bad it was.

“I used to walk home at nights down the middle of the street - the safest place,” says New York author Kate Buford, who studied the streets of upper Manhattan when researching a biography on actor Burt Lancaster.

But she also lived in the Upper West in the 1980s and says the whole area from 110th St down to 79th was “really very dangerous”. The 96th St subway - now servicing an upmarket part of Broadway - was to be avoided. Morningside Park near Columbia University was no man’s land.

And who knew what was happening just further north in Harlem.

Many have been credited with having cleaned up New York, most obviously Rudy Giuliani, mayor from 1994 to 2001 and often associated with zero-tolerance policing.

But it is generally agreed the true architects of New York’s fight back against street crime were criminologist Professor George Kelling, along with his colleague, James Wilson (who died in February).

In the early 1980s they developed the Broken Windows theory, which argues that when a kid sees one building with a broken window, he’ll then throw a rock through another window. Eventually, all the windows will be smashed.

The idea is that people committing small misdemeanors should be jumped on, quickly, in order to halt urban decay.

In 1985, Kelling was hired as a consultant by New York’s transit police to target graffiti and clean up the dangerous subway. This gave some confidence back to commuters, but it was superficial.

Then, in 1990, William Bratton, in charge of New York transit police (he retired as Los Angeles’ police chief in 2009) decided to take Kelling’s theories further. Police began cracking down on fare evaders and ran checks on those who were caught. One in 10 were serious criminals with warrants.

Police began exploiting their contacts with these criminals. Busted for fare evasion, but wanted for more serious crimes, they began to cooperate. The authorities began to understand the who’s who of New York’s criminals.

By the time Giuliani came along, in 1994, he began calling it zero tolerance. That is now seen as something of a dirty term in the US, because it suggests that police can act without discretion and persecute anyone for any trifling misdeed.

I spoke to Kelling last year, who told me that zero tolerance never could - and never did - work in New York. The weary public would not tolerate being harassed by both muggers and police.

But selective zero tolerance - such as occurred in the mid ‘90s when outsiders were coming in to bash gays in the Greenwich Village area – did work.

It took a clear and public laying down of the law.

“If there is really a well-organised gang, the message is if any one of your members gets involved in violent crime we’re coming after all of you,” he said.

“If you spit of the sidewalk, we’re coming after you. You have to control your members. If any of your members carry guns, we’re coming after all of you.

“You send a very strong message that gangs have to control their crazier members. When you get a gang, they’re not all prepared to kill people. It’s only a small number in that gang. The gang itself has to exert control on its own people. And the police have to make sure the public knows what it’s doing.”

The NSW drive-by shootings are a case in point. From my distance in New York, it is not clear whether these are small individual groups or larger gangs. They seem not to be caught or prosecuted, which is the advantage of the cowardly drive-by.

Usually, the only evidence is a slug from an unregistered gun, which makes prosecution difficult.

But police have a general idea who they are.

Kelling’s view was that police shouldn’t wait until the drive-by shooting happens; they cannot ignore small offences in the hope they’ll arrest them later as big scalps. Police must get in first by lawfully harassing dangerous criminals on minor infringements.

The view is counter-intuitive to almost every cop show ever seen, where the idea is that cops ignore every minor misdeed in the hope of nailing someone for something bigger.

But New York began jamming troublemakers into the court system to face minor charges. The serious charges could wait.

“Criminal types are busy,” said Kelling. “They’re committing serious offences and so when you enforce the law against minor offences, it opens up access to real troublemakers.

“It’s simply about going into their world, telling them you know who they are, and if they commit even minor offences you’ll come down hard. It’s an aggressive approach which identifies the hard core.”

When the gangs are damaged and hurting, the solo petty criminals also find the environment less conducive to their work. And the ordinary citizens who previously ignored the bag-snatcher suddenly find courage.

The New York streets were bad. Just near my home, in Central Park, it was lawless day or night. In 1989, the rape of a woman jogging through the park galvanised the city. People had had enough.

The number of rapes peaked in 1985 with 5,706. In 2010, that number was halved. The number of murders peaked in 1990, with 2,605. There were 866 in 2010.

The number of muggings was extraordinary - more than 120,000 in 1981. In 2010, there were 28,473.

If you search online for stories about New York crime in the 80s, you won’t go far before you encounter a certain nostalgia for how it was: people talk of the “true”, “gritty”, “authentic” New York. 

Even Ms Buford says: “The Upper West Side was grubby, dangerous, filthy - and we loved it.

“The rule of thumb was that it took five years to master the city, if you could survive the tension, not to mention your life. Everything was hard, in addition to having to compete against the best and brightest. But, that was why we were there.”

But missing it is not the same as wanting it back.

“In fact, the renaissance of a city that seemed un-fixable is one of the great hopeful stories of our time, I’d argue,” she says. “If New York City could turn itself around, anyplace can. So, no, I would not want to go back to that time after all.”

There is one question that no one seems to be able to answer: where did all the crims go? Maybe they got to like the new New York as well.

Paul Toohey’s American Story is available on Saturdays on News Ltd iPad apps.

Most commented


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    • Mouse says:

      09:18am | 22/04/12

      The Warriors!!!  I love that movie. Cyrus for PM (if he wasn’t dead of course!)  lol :o)

    • subotic the Gramacy Riff says:

      07:44am | 23/04/12

      Mooo-ouse, come out ot playeeeeaaay….

    • Mouse says:

      10:17am | 23/04/12

      Ahhhhh subby, playing with you would be fun I would bet!!  LOL :o)

    • TheOzTrucker says:

      09:53am | 22/04/12

      Zero tolerence is a fine idea. Problem is it is not applied. Criminals always have some excuse. I was abused as a child. I have ADHD. I am 1/15th aboriginal. Look the boy is only 15 and he deserves another chance even though he has been burgling houses and stealing cars since he could stand up. The courts always seem to be happy to let some serial criminal off with a slap on the wrist for their ongoing anti-social behaviour.

      The thing that I think is missed is that zero tollerence is that it is all about detecting offences. Prosecuting the offenders and then punishing the guilty.
      We do not have the recources to deal with properly applied zero tolerence. There are not enough police. They are too busy acting as indirect tax collectors on the roads. There is not enough court time. There is not enough space in the prisons. I also love the argument that prison is just a graduate school. there may be something to it.

      It appears to be OK to try to make laws that single out groups. The Bike Gangs seem to have come in for a fair bit of attention. I don’t go in for the slippery slope argument. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that once law enforcement officers are allowed to target individuals because they belong to a particular section of the community problems arise. The SA government found out, to their surprise, that it was not on. Law and punishment needs to be evenly applied.

      There is absolutly no point making more laws. Its the same as the guns argument. Enforce the laws we already have.

    • RyaN says:

      10:17am | 22/04/12

      Try Johannesburg central, it makes the very worst parts of the old New York look like Disneyland.

    • Craig of North Brisbane says:

      04:32pm | 23/04/12

      The interesting thing is, Jo’burg is not as bad as it has been in the past.  Statistically, it’s safer than London, which is not usually held out as an example of a “bad” city (although it’s got some very scary areas).

    • T.A says:

      10:48am | 22/04/12

      Hate to sound like I’ve missed the point - but the ‘broken windows’ theory has lost alot of support since being popularized years ago in ‘Tipping Point’. The Freakonomics guys (Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner) used statistical analysis - rather than sociological hokum and Gladwell’s clever storytelling - to effectively discredit the effectiveness of this approach, at least in regards to a reduced crime rate. Crime started falling in 1990, but Giuliani wasn’t in office until 1994. The NYPD grew it’s force 45% between 1991 and 2001 (3x the national average) so simply having more police numbers could be a big factor. Thirdly, crime went down everywhere. Los Angeles had a similar drop in crime without the broken windows approach. Also by the 90’s the crack trade had waned significantly. The whole “broken windows” theory most probably confused correlation with causation. Love your work, but maybe keep the research current.

    • IJ says:

      10:49am | 22/04/12

      There was zero tolerance when I was young, if you acted up, you got a kick up the bum from the local police and told to get home, which we did. Not only did we have respect for the police but were worried that they would call our parents and we’d cop it again.

      Isn’t it great now the every young person knows their “rights”, what a much better place we live in now, “not”.

    • Jacob says:

      12:51pm | 22/04/12

      Lol. Young people are educated on their rights… that’s a bad thing.

    • Donny says:

      04:41pm | 22/04/12

      Not so much that the young were educated on their rights, more like they were educated that if you did something wrong, there was a consequence to it.  Nowadays it appears that you can get away with almost anything, with either minimal or no consequences.

    • thatmosis says:

      06:29pm | 22/04/12

      Thats the problem right there, young people know their rights which they are taught at school instead of the 3R’s. Its time a new regime was established where if you commit a crime you forfeit your rights if found guilty and the old truth in sentencing actually starts to mean something, not this mamby pamby crap that we are nopw confronted with. Courts should take away the revolving doors and parents made responsible for their children.

    • Bob Brown's running shoes says:

      11:54am | 23/04/12

      Home is a good place to implement zero tolerance to unsatisfactory past times and pursuits, and it takes a community to fix a community.

      Police just cause misery and hardship - the community is fractured by social division and people expect cops to fill a role that they’ve never done(in Australia they were only ever introduced for control, and oppression of the poor) - they don’t offer solutions to juvie offending, only families and communities can do that. Most police don’t live in the communities that they work in anyway - too scared of accountability.

    • CD says:

      10:57am | 22/04/12

      Love Paul Toohey’s columns.
      The obvious premise that the way to stop anything from escalating is to trap it in the beginning seems lost on so many lawmakers.

      Three years of criminology studies at uni and fifteen years of research on my own only served to show me academics only want the soft touch.

      Exactly where has that ever shown to be successful?

    • iansand says:

      04:08pm | 22/04/12

      Have you ever seen the statistics on recidivism rates after appearances in juvenile courts?  If you have you would have to agree that something in the current system is working.

    • Austin 3:16 says:

      10:37am | 23/04/12

      In the USA jurisdictions that have tried community policing have also experienced a reduced crime rate.

    • Spare the Rodd,,,, says:

      11:10am | 22/04/12

      I remember an incident when shortly after Bill Clinton was newly elected in 1993 , a young American man in Singapore was caught graffiting cars and other property then duly sentenced to just 6 lashes of the cane, Clinton personally intervened and asked for clemency to wich the Singaporeans agreed and administered just 3 lashes, the offender was later asked by journalists what his thoughts were, to wich he replied,

      “I’m never coming back here, it’s the worst experience I’ve ever had”
      The terrific work our law enforcers do goes to waste with ridiculously soft and laughable sentences,
      A hoon driver for example caught repeatedly driving without a licence, unpaid fines, speeding, doing burnouts dreaming he’s the star in a “Fast and Furious” gets a NON custodial sentence yet a Judge who has no criminal history has a stupid indiscretion about ONE minor speeding ticket held a job his entire life and for most of that time lives a clean and decent life, is thown into a cell as if he’s a dangerous threat to the community.
      I’m not saying he’s above the law, however he’s suffered a complete humiliation and embarresment wich is far worse than any sentence but I think home detention would have been plenty to keep the community SAFE instead of taking up prison space for Dangerous criminals.

      Attitude is a big part in young peoples’ lives and development,  when they are fed a constant diet of Hollywood fantasy and anti-social behavior it becomes a part of their real lives, and with an almost silent and complacent populace we get what we deserve, aparrently suffering gladly or not,
      in virtual silence.

      When was the last time you slept with your windows open and doors unlocked?
      Let your children play in the streets and parks ALONE.?
      Left your car with contents unlocked? (some people I know even lock them in a locked garage)
      Felt safe enough to walk every inch of the city you live in ALONE?

      We have become the virtual prisoners in this “soft headed” society, socialy engineered by numerous groups of DO-GOODERS and dreamy politicians.

      If you think it’s realy bad now then think again, we are headed the same way of some of the worst gang and crime effected cities in the world with a drug culture as it’s base.

    • M says:

      08:02am | 23/04/12

      Purgery is still a very serious offence, and you’d expect a judge to uphold the law under which he serves. Enfield was rightly made example of.

    • marley says:

      08:40am | 23/04/12

      @M - please, the word is “perjury.”  But you’re right, he wasn’t convicted of a traffic offence, he was convicted of perjury and obstructing the course of justice, if memory serves.

    • Spare the Rodd says:

      10:26am | 23/04/12

      @ M and Marley, I’m not playing down the seriousness of the indiscretion or the resultant perjury, the point I was making is Einfeid nor anybody else is above the law ,but he’s hardly a danger to the community, I’m assuming the law applies equally to all and that penalties also are applied as a deterrant are equal as well,  I’m simply saying that justice would have been equally served if non dangerous, non repeat offenders like him serve their custodial sentences in home detention it would free up jail cells to keep dangerous and repeat offenders out of the community.
      Jail is not a place for one time NON dangerous NON repeat offenders whom are not hardened criminals with a clean slate on their lifes’ history prior to “screwing up” just the one time.
      Let’s face it , do you really beleive Einfeld needed a jail custodial sentence to be rehabilitated?  or to keep the community SAFE?
      Is he EVER likely to repeat offend?

    • Du says:

      01:22pm | 22/04/12

      New York dealt with local gangs.. here we deal with imported gangs from countries .where human life has no value as a result of constant political upheaval and they a lot harder to control

    • Mr.Tiny says:

      02:38pm | 22/04/12

      My Mum is a big fan of zero tolerance. That’s why I like to point out every time she Jaywalks or speeds up to miss a red light.

    • Robert S McCormick says:

      03:24pm | 22/04/12

      ...and some of those criminals, it is alleged, are in our Federal Parliament..
      Our politicians set themselves up on Pedestals of Purity, condemning everyone & everything, particularly the crime & corruption within International Religious businesses, and just take a look at what have been accused of!..

    • Law Abiding Citizen says:

      04:20pm | 22/04/12

      Watch out zero tolerance out it is coming to Sydney.
      Our esteemed Police Chief is saying the same discredited thing as William Bratton, did in the 1990s. If unable to produce a train ticket the NSW Police will enforce this thuggish policy

      We have seen the them allegedly shooting dead with a taser someone running away from them. Worryingly there is now an incident in Kings Cross where Indigenous children appear to have been shot.

      Over reaction by the police can cause more damage than then they stop.

      Law Abiding Citizen, does not affect you?
      Than watch out when you are travelling on the train make sure you have not broken any innocuous by-laws or look at an officer the wrong way. Next thing you know you will knocked up with a trifecta arrest and possibly tasered to within an inch of your life if you are lucky.

    • Tator says:

      06:09pm | 22/04/12

      those offenders shot in Kings Cross were driving a stolen car along a crowded footpath and had already cleaned up one pedestrian and one police officer.  So in other words, using a motor vehicle as a potentially lethal weapon and were refusing to stop.  What else could the police on the scene do, say “Stop or I’ll say Stop again”  If they didn’t act, how many more innocent bystanders had to get seriously injured or killed before YOU would have acted, one, two, ten, twenty cmon, pick a number, because as a police officer, we have to make these decisions on the spot and can never get them right in everyones eyes all the time, so we try to make the best decision that we can in the circumstances and we do get the odd one wrong now and again, but most of the time, we do get it right.  And you as a member of the public get to judge the decision with the benefit of hindsight and time to think whereas the Patrol officers involved had seconds to make a decision.
      The fact that reports have the injured pedestrian still stuck under the front of the car and dragged along as the car was driving down the footpath when the shots were fired should give you more indication that there was an immediate threat to life which according to my training and 22 years of experience in policing, justifies usage of lethal force

    • azzure says:

      07:20pm | 22/04/12

      It should not be a matter of public opinion whether the force applied was too much or too little, the shooting of the teens driving a stolen car on a footpath injuring innocent bystanders is an acceptable amount of force and that decision saved countless innocent lives by stopping the situation early.

    • Tracker says:

      08:27pm | 22/04/12

      Worryingly there is now an incident in Kings Cross where Indigenous children appear to have been shot.

      What brand are your rose coloured glasses ?

      You just keep smokin’ whatever you are smokin’ Sir grin

    • TheOzTrucket says:

      09:20pm | 22/04/12

      I have no time for the Monday footy show types that second guess the troops on the gound. Having had to justify myself to those who were not there, did not see or in any way experience the situation and have then had days or weeks to pull apart what happened is not a pleasant thing to go through. You have to observe what is happening, make your decision and act. Then you live with the outcome. This is something that is probably difficult for someone who has never had to make a life or death decision to understand. To me, based on what we know, the shooting appears to be justified. To suggest that the officer could realise the driver was 14 or what gender or racial background is just ridiculous.

    • Pat says:

      04:09am | 23/04/12

      Just a few questions to the obvious bleeeding hearts: Since when does claimed various forms of ethnicity give people at any age - the right to a free pass to flout a Police order to stop or be questioned, drive fully loaded stolen cars without a licence, careen onto footpaths to escape, plus knock down and pin underneath, innocent members of the public in their attempted escape?  Are you of the belief that they have a special set of Laws, to operate under?  In the split seconds this mayhem was all occuring, what did you want the Police reaction to be? Pull out a Taser and hit the car???!!!

    • Maggie says:

      04:47pm | 22/04/12

      You need to read Frankilin Zimring"s “The City that became safe.” The true story is much more nuanced and complex than you represent, Mr Toohey.

    • stephen says:

      08:16pm | 22/04/12

      Yeah I’m sure a Journalist can read a newspaper where it was reported today that zero-tolerance began in 1985 when city police were rounding up gang members who commited misdemeaners and their gang leaders were contacted and were told to discipline the offenders or the whole gang would suffer.
      There’s a lot of drugs in Sunnybank, and those bikie-blokes sitting in the sun on the porch at the local pub on Mains road are not smiling at the beer.

    • mike says:

      06:18pm | 22/04/12

      i am all for zero tolerance,,and i imagine all the do gooders will be out wringing there hands and crying about these young thugs who our police so rightfully shot in kings cross without a word about the poor woman who they ran over ,the police should have put a few more rounds into them to make sure they cant do it again

    • stephen says:

      06:56pm | 22/04/12

      Indigenous children or any other children for that matter who, at 14, are behind the wheel driving on the footpath, run down a young woman and run over a policeman and refuse to stop when directed and remain a threat to the public, deserve to be stopped by any means, and to suggest otherwise, that because of the colour of their skin, they deserve special treatment is, under the described circumstances, a racist attitude.

    • pete says:

      09:32pm | 22/04/12

      “where did all the crims go?”

      Many stopped being born when abortion was legalised.

    • Zaf says:

      11:16am | 23/04/12


      The fall in crime across the US correlates with (factoring in a time lag) the widespread availability of cheap, effective contracpetives and wider access to abortion.

      Super tough policing was not the only (or even the major) factor.

      Re NY: ‘zero tolerance’ is a misnomer.  NY combined zero tolerance of public violence and criminality (so broken windows, drug dealing on the street, mugging etc.) with a hard reduction approach (reducing police reosurces devoted to nabbing drug users, not chasing up indoor drug use,etc.). 

      These two approaches togher, along with the demographic changes brought about by the pill and abortion, are what made NYC safer.

    • Esteban says:

      01:32pm | 23/04/12

      Zero tolerance in NY was introduces 16 years after legalised abortion came into being. Sad but true.

    • Claire says:

      12:06am | 23/04/12

      Before kids were worried the Teacher or the Police call their Parent when they are in trouble. The kids have more respect for their elders and obey the law. To day the good old fashion discipline is gone and Parents had stop discipline and correct their children out of fear to get in trouble from the law. Most of these Parents lash out with rage when they are frustrated at their children, their Partner, at work, on the road, in the parking lot, at school, in a bar and their own undiscipline children copy their behaviour.

      They had not learn how to handle rejection, anger from others, from racists, from bully,  being constantly victimize, put down and had to deal with offensive name calling. They are touchy about everything and are hurt. The world need to stop being rude and lash out with rage when adult or children make mistake and learn to forgive one another or they will destroy the new generation with their hatred and rage.

    • subotic says:

      08:39am | 23/04/12

      I wouldn’t hang out at Sunnybank train station after dark. Or Woodridge station, at any time of day for that matter.

      And I’m scary ugly….

    • Magnet says:

      11:46am | 23/04/12

      Ohh, that’s a bit harsh - every1 is beautiful in their own way.

      Train stations aren’t a great place to hang out, so maybe you should just pass through them expedititiously?

    • Anna C says:

      08:54am | 23/04/12

      If it isn’t already so, make it a criminal offence to be a member of a bikie gang and lock them all up. To hell with what the civil libertarians think, we need these people off the streets before they kill some innocent people. 

      No more excuses.  I don’t care if these criminals are from deprived backgrounds, I want to see the courts throw the book at them.

    • Michael says:

      10:54am | 23/04/12

      That’s right Anna, only motorcyclists are the problem. I hope that the ‘bikies’, you refer to are actually ‘gang’ members that that happen to also deal in motorcycles. I agree that the criminals need to be dealt with, but bear in mind that some of the proposed laws, if enforced to the letter( and the police seem to love to enforce the letter, not the spirit of the law) might actually prevent you from attending any meeting of several like minding people (knitters?). If the law allowed me to be locked up because I went for a ride with a couple of my friends, I would hope that the same could be done to god botherers meeting a a group.

    • Michael says:

      08:58am | 23/04/12

      I suspect that the whole article is “off target”.........the dangerous thing about Sunnybank’s streets is the drivers. Seriously, you put yours and you passengers life at risk anytime you’re in(or near) Sunnybank traffic. I dont think any other Brisbane suburb compares for inattentive, careless,and incompetent drivers.

    • Dieter Moeckel says:

      10:20am | 23/04/12

      We also have a zero tolerance of drugs ...

      more prohibition, more get tough on, stronger penalties, corporal punishment ... all a bloody waste of time - more unarmed police on the beat, out of cars onto the streets patrolling not filling out incessant forms.
      There must be a policeman/population ratio somewhere that’s effective.
      Better training for police officers and a substantial increase in pay to attract the best - not cowboys who chase cars and unhappy hoodlums who want nothing more than to use their “weapons"shoot people - officer who nip any malfeasance in the bud by their presence. What we need if good old Mr Plods not speed camera operators, not 16 officers to man a breath test but good old patrolmen who check that doors are locked and people are safe at night.

    • Mark/fox says:

      07:24pm | 23/04/12

      Respect for society and a better place to live will come at a price one that is worth paying. 30 plus yeras ago you could leave your car parked in the street with the keys in it all night and it would safe. Nowdays many are frightened to go out in th evening for a bit of excercise for the risk of getting done over by scum. Things will not get better until we give police more power, they take very little notice of you if you are trying to do the right thing and immigration control, we can not manage what we have.

    • Joe says:

      07:45pm | 23/04/12

      At the end of the day, it is down to parents educating their children the rights and wrongs of things. If they see mumsy or dad jaywalking to take them to school, or double parking and even swearing on the phone (which reminded me of that funny ad on tv), they are likely to think it’s ok. These are anti-social behaviours and kids will emulate their parents. Practice forbearance and equanimity - and your kids will thank you for it (it’s not about suppressing emotions, but finding the means to understand and control unnecessary outbursts). Don’t let others (teachers, peers, friends etc.) control the education of your kids, take control.

    • Craig says:

      11:40am | 25/04/12

      We are long overdue for a feature story on how Rudy Giuliani took on New York’s Italian Mafia. I do realise they are still alive and making money today but he did take away some of their power. How ?


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