leaders reduce subway crime

How Can Leaders Reduce Subway Crime by 90%…Again?

We often have this mindset that police are no-nonsense, top-down folk whose leaders reduce crime with hard-nose tactics. We often can be wrong.

Take, for example, William Bratton, one of the most recognized police leaders of our times. He led the Boston PD, the NYPD twice and the LAPD. After Boston and before the NYPD, he led the New York Transit Police.

Bratton told me when I interviewed him for my book that subway crime was out of control when he started at the transit police.

His lieutenants spent their lives largely above ground. They drove to work in department-issued cars. (Many didn’t live near the subway.) They worked in climate-controlled, above-ground offices. And they drove across town to meetings in their cars. They didn’t see the subway much.

Bratton was new in town and his family was still back in Boston, so he soaked up his new job full-time. He spent nights and weekends getting lost in the subway. He’d surprise night-shift officers at 3 a.m. by just getting off a train and introducing himself.

Pretty soon, Bratton knew more about the subway and its problems than his lieutenants. “Why aren’t officers using their walkie talkies like they’re supposed to?” someone might ask. Bratton would already know the answer: The walkie talkies had major dead zones; he’d found one officer above ground trying to get coverage one night.

It’s not a good idea for your boss to know more than you, so his lieutenants realized on their own that they had to get back into the subway. These leaders once again experienced for themselves the smells, the crime, the homeless villages, the panhandlers. They saw riders’ scared faces. They understood firsthand how hard the force’s work had become. The challenges became real to them again.

Fixing these challenges became their want-to-do. Bratton became a sounding board for his lieutenants, listening and encouraging them. The ideas flowed. It started with small crimes and nuisances, and that set the tone for the overall environment.

In the three years he was at the Transit Police, Bratton saw his leaders reduce subway crime by 90 percent. This crime reduction lasted almost 30 years, making it lasting change—the definition of winning change. Bratton hadn’t told his lieutenants to “get the hell away from your desks and get back into action.” His example had made this their idea.

So how can leaders reduce subway crime again, given rising crime in subways across the country? And what lessons can we learn, given the need for change in so many other organizations today?

When we want real change—whatever the situation—it can’t be top-down. We lead by example. We listen, which makes the change their idea. We get our people to want to change. It doesn’t require touchy-feely-ness; no, Bratton is no touchy-feely guy. His example was all the “touch” he needed.

Let me know what you think. I look forward to being in touch.


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