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Phil-osophically Speaking: March 22, 2012

You Don’t Know Jack

He was short, corpulent and sported a finely manicured mustache. There was no mistaking him for anyone else when his beefy body swaggered (walked is too mild a description) down the sidewalks of New York. He had the air of someone who knew his way around the concrete jungle. Every byway, thoroughfare, back ally and even the subterranean world in this great big city was imprinted in his DNA. He was born for New York; the kind of colorful character you read about but are surprised actually exists.

His name was Jack Maple. He was a cop and a damn good one. Maybe the best. He had a style all his own; a born ham whose duds telegraphed a highfalutin pluck and self-assurance. You couldn’t miss him with his Bowler hat, polished wing tip shoes with spats, and a tailored three-piece suit. Yeah, this was his town and it gnawed at him that good, decent, honest folks in this great city had to be afraid of what people these days now call undesirables. In Jack’s time they were simply called scum. In fact, that’s what he still called them. The social science vernacular never did appeal to him; his lexicon had the uncooked rawness of the mean streets he daily patrolled.

That’s why he became a cop; he loathed the smell of fear that hung heavy over the city. He began as a transit officer, which was then considered the most dangerous job in the city. He relished his promotion as an undercover detective patrolling Times Square and the train station at 42nd Street. These were the Wild West days of the late ’70s and ’80s; not even Wyatt Earp would have had the stones to take that beat. Times Square was being overrun by drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. The streets echoed with gunfire as crack wars erupted in broad daylight. Robbery, rape, assault and murder were part of the daily grind of the megalopolis. Much like the city’s gridlock, you didn’t like it but you got used to it.

Not Maple. He was not the type to get used to being held hostage in his own city. He fought back, not as a Charles Bronson vigilante, but scientifically. From the time he had worked the labyrinthine underworld of New York’s subway, Maple devised a system tracking these crimes by pinpointing them on several hundred maps, which he hung on paint peeling walls. They jokingly called it wallpaper. But Jack Maple was no interior decorator; he was a one-man army making sure if you did the crime you would do the time.

Maple used these maps to determine crime patterns and would then dispatch police officers into these hubs of lawlessness. He called his method Compstat, and like Archimedes lever, it moved the earthly foundations of law enforcement. To take one stat, robberies were reduced in the subway from 1,200 a year to 12. The police brass wiped the foggy lenses of their spectacles and took notice. One of them was a cop named Bill Bratton, the then-head of the N.Y. Transit Police Department. Bratton had a memory like an elephant. When a hard as nails former prosecutor named Rudolph Guiliani became the city’s mayor, he tagged Bratton as his police commissioner. In a flash Maple’s phone was ringing off the hook. It was Bratton. Maple was ordered to pack his bags and haul his iron cast carcass and his wall paper to One Police Plaza. The NYPD had a new Deputy Commissioner.

While Maple was working miracles in the New York subway system, two glass rimmed college professors were forging a brave new theory of criminology. In an attempt to marry theory with policy, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, two discerning academics, published an article in The Atlantic monthly that would revolutionize the war against crime. The article had a succinct ring to it, “Broken Windows.”

Wilson and Kelling argued that by maintaining and monitoring urban environments we can stop the spread of vandalism and arrest the escalation of serious crime.  Their lucid, well-knit prose read like a parable; a paean to common sense. Sample this solitary passage:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people start leaving bags of trash or start breaking into cars.

The upshot is that as more respectable people check out of these neighborhoods, more lawbreakers check in. Bad behavior generates more bad behavior. The moral of the story: pay attention to the smaller problems and you avoid large ones. This includes vagrants, turnstile jumpers, public drinking, graffiti and squeegee men intimidating motorists to hand over cash for cleaning their windshields. Repair the windows, clean up the trash, bust fare evaders and crime, like gravity, presses downward and quality of life, like cream, rises to the top.

With Rudy Guiliani the new sheriff in town, the time was ripe to clean up Dodge. It was now all about zero tolerance and taming the seediness and lawlessness that for too long had wracked the greatest metropolis in the world. Embracing Compstat and marrying it to “Broken Windows,” Bratton and Guiliani joined together in arm-twisting the bureaucratically inert NYPD to adopt both measures. The results were mind-blowing: Crime plummeted as if it had just stepped into an open elevator shaft.

Ideas matter and so does political will. With a little guts behind it, Compstat and Broken Windows changed a city. Driving into the Big Apple in 1996, I was stunned by the news that crackled over my car radio naming Manhattan as the safest big city in America. With the Crown Heights riots and the anarchy of the 1977 blackout still a vivid memory, I would have sooner believed in the tooth fairy.

Today, law enforcement’s new technique of maintaining DNA profile databases of criminal offenders is drawing fire from civil liberty groups. According to a recent study at Stanford University, this high-tech innovation has enormous potential to stop recidivism and reduce crime. The study compared criminals who were released before database expansions with those released afterward. The findings showed that those in the database are far more likely to be caught if they commit a crime and, indeed, are far less likely to commit new crimes. While privacy is an issue, proper oversight would eliminate its more egregious abuses, while adding a powerful tool to protect the public.

I think Jack Maple would have loved having access to these DNA databases. We’ll never know for sure because Jack left us too early. In 2001, with his death from colon cancer imminent, Jack wanted his funeral procession to go up 42nd Street, past Grand Central Terminal during rush hour. Such a line of march, he chuckled, would stop traffic dead for the fat man. Well, you know, he always was a ham. He wanted to die as he lived: in style. It would have been a triumphant exit in the city he helped save.

I honestly don’t know if Jack ever got his wish. But the next time you’re in Times Square for a Broadway show, be grateful you don’t have to nervously look over your shoulder to see what’s lurking in the shadows. Think of the guy who got the ball rolling for the good guys, the one with the Bowler hat wearing polished wing tip shoes — don’t forget the spats. He made the streets safe. He made a difference. He mattered.