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Epidemics

| September 12, 2005 12:00 AM

In the mid-1980s, the New York subway system was a cesspool of crime and filth. There were about 15,000 felonies a year committed in the stations and trains and it would reach as high as 20,000 in the next five years.

People avoiding paying the subway fare of $1.25 were costing the system about $150 million a year. Nearly all 6,000 cars in the subway system were covered with graffiti and the interior of the cars were lined with garbage. There were 500 areas on the track system that were marked as too dangerous for trains to travel more than 15 miles per hour, there were frequent fires and derailments.

In the entire city, there was an average of 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies a year. New York City was in the midst of its worst crime epidemic.

The transit authority hired David Gunn to oversee a multi-billion-dollar rebuilding of the subway system. But first he had to solve the crime problem.

He started with the graffiti to the shock of city residents and city officials. He established cleaning stations at the end of the lines so that cars were completely cleaned of graffiti and kept clean. It took him six years to accomplish that task.

In 1990, the transit authority hired William Bratton to head the transit police. Instead of going after the violent crimes on the station platforms and subway cars, Bratton focused on the fare-beaters - again to the shock and dismay of system users and public officials.

When the transit police arrested people for climbing over fences and turnstiles to avoid paying fares they found knives, guns and other forms of illegal weaponry on the fare-beaters. And they found numerous outstanding warrants.

Bratton, like Gunn with graffiti, felt fare-beating was a "small expression of disorder" that invited more serious crime.

From 1990 to 1994, misdemeanor arrests increased fivefold as the transit police turned their attention to the smallest infractions. After the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor in 1994, Bratton was made head of the city police department where he applied the same principles.

Both Bratton and Gunn were advocates of the "Broken Windows" theory by a pair of criminologists who believed crime was the inevitable result of disorder. The theory is that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken and a sense of anarchy will spread sending a signal that anything goes.

This is from one chapter in a fascinating book titled "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. It covers more than crime but looks at epidemics of all kinds from a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore to the marketing epidemic that saw Hush Puppies shoes become chic in the 1990s. The book even examines the famous ride of Paul Revere and why it was so successful when William Dawes left the same place at the same time and failed miserably to roust the "Minutemen" along a parallel route.

The book also examines the success of Sesame Street in the late 60's and early 70's and the eventual success of Blue's Clues, another children's program.

This is a can't-put-down-read that examines what factor or factors "tipped" a series of events into an epidemic. In almost all cases it shows how little things make big differences - the subtitle of the book. I've ordered four copies of the book to share with my employees. There's a lot here that can be considered and perhaps applied to everyday life here in southern Lincoln County.

Pick up a copy. At the very least, it's a darn good read.