Rudy Giuliani is a tragic figure. His painful appearances on Fox News and CNN in 2019 coupled with the office he once led—the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office—investigating him for possible campaign finance violations for his activities in Ukraine make this clear. Giuliani’s final act, however resolved, should not undo his well-deserved reputation as the greatest mayor in New York City history—an honor earned primarily by tackling the twin pathologies of crime and disorder.

The Reign of de Blasio and the Return of Crime

As mayor, Giuliani transformed New York City from a permissive and disordered society in which criminals, vagrants, bureaucrats, racial charlatans, and public-sector unions ran roughshod over taxpayers to a socially healthy and financially solvent metropolis worthy of its “Capital of the World” moniker. His successor, Michael Bloomberg, continued his crime-fighting policies for twelve years, but they are willfully being dismantled by Gracie Mansion’s current occupant and failed Democratic presidential candidate, Bill de Blasio.

Under de Blasio’s watch, aggressive vagrancy has returned, and violent crime increased in 2019 from the year prior. Murder, for instance, increased by 7.8 percent, and a surge in anti-Semitic assaults and vandalism rose by 26 percent in the ending weeks of 2019. This is not an outlier. This is the doing of a progressive mayor who governs in conformity with the criminal justice philosophy of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rather than Attorney General William Barr.

To remind urban dwellers that the present crisis of public disorder in major cities results from an intentional choice rather than a natural state, it is necessary to examine Giuliani’s revolutionary eight years as New York’s crime-fighter-in-chief and the quality-of-life policing and computer-based accountability initiatives he implemented.

The Tragedy of the Dinkins Years and the Triumph of Fear

New Yorkers elected Giuliani on the heels of trauma: the failed four-year mayoralty of Democrat David Dinkins, an eminently decent and genteel former Marine reared in the ways of the Harlem political clubhouse whom Giuliani unsuccessfully ran against in 1989. In his 1990 inaugural address, Dinkins spoke in flowerily rhetoric about “New York as a gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation.” New Yorkers, of course, welcomed and appreciated the historical significance of electing the city’s first black mayor but were understandably more interested in not being stabbed in a locked subway car or robbed during an evening walk in Central Park. For reasons lost to history, the idea was Dinkins, rather than Giuliani, was better equipped to address the crisis in public safety.

In his first year in office, Dinkins presided over the bloodiest year in recorded New York City history, in which 2,245 murders were committed—roughly six homicides a day. Throughout his four-year term, cab drivers were robbed and killed for sport. Stray bullets killed children by the dozens. Thugs murdered people for sneakers. A man was killed for being gay, another for wearing a leather jacket. Failing to return a high-five got one teenager summarily executed. Violent race riots consumed central Brooklyn. A woman was crushed to death by marauders in a van who wanted her purse. One known mentally ill vagabond grabbed a baby from its mother and stabbed the toddler repeatedly in the face with a pen.

In essence, the underclass was waging a rebellion against social order. To those who lived it, the madness of the time cannot be overstated. Dinkins, however, was so indecisive in his response to the mayhem that the New York Post—speaking for just about every concerned New Yorker—pleaded with the mayor publicly on its front page: “Dave, Do Something!” A 1990 report by the Citizens Crime Commission stated what New Yorkers felt: “Crime is tearing at the vitals of New York City . . . [while] destroying the morale of our citizens, making them fearful for their safety, pessimistic about their future and, in some cases, persuading them to leave this, the greatest city in the world.”

The Rise of Giuliani and the Public Demand for Order

By 1993, the proverbial tipping point was reached. In the Dinkins-Giuliani rematch of that year, New Yorkers, including many liberal Democrats in good standing, recognized that the only hope for theirs and their children’s future was the Republican former lawman of the Reagan Justice Department who campaigned in 1989 on a simple platform: “Nobody owns him.  Rudy – he’ll clean up New York.”

And clean up he did. Giuliani was heroic on September 11, 2001, but it was his eight years in City Hall that saved Gotham. To ensure New Yorkers understood the stakes, Giuliani announced in his 1994 inaugural address: “The era of fear has had a long enough reign. The period of doubt has run its course. . . . I will place a much greater emphasis on stricter enforcement of the law to reverse the growing trend of ever increasing tolerance for lawless behavior.” This was in stark contrast to Dinkins’s 1990 declaration that his administration would “renew the quest for social justice.”

Commissioner Bratton, the Broken-Windows-Compstat Revolution, and the Battle of New York

When Giuliani began his singularly focused assault on crime, his best wartime decision was the appointment of William J. Bratton as police commissioner. Like the mayor, Bratton understood that the crime rebellion required more than the metaphor of war; it required the prosecution of one: “I did not come here to lose.  We will fight for every house in the city.  We will fight for every street.  We will fight for every borough.  And we will win,” Bratton told crime-weary New Yorkers.

With Giuliani’s blessing and obsessive oversight, Bratton implemented the two greatest advances in crime fighting since the cataloging of fingerprints and the collection of DNA: broken-windows policing and CompStat.  

Broken-windows criminological theory—much less a theory than an astute observation of human nature—holds “that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” according to George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in their ground-breaking 1982 Atlantic article “Broken Windows.” This is because “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

In less metaphoric parlance, “the citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization—namely, that serious street crime flourishes in area in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.” When public spaces are occupied by drunks, rowdy teenagers, and beggars—or, in contemporary terms, vagrants, drug addicts, and the untreated mentally ill—law-abiding citizens experience fear or disgust and retreat from these areas. This exodus invites more serious crime because of the corresponding weakening of informal social controls.

Prior to his appointment as Giuliani’s police commissioner, Bratton served as Dinkins’s chief of the New York City Transit Police (which merged with the NYPD in 1995), where he put theory into practice in the subways. He “quickly learned that the serious criminals committed petty crimes, too.  When they weren’t committing robberies or assaults, they were hoping turnstiles, unlawfully moving between cars, and generally diminishing the quality of life that should be enjoyed by other, fare-paying riders.”

It was not until Giuliani’s election, however, that Bratton received his writ to “fight for every street.” A believer in the notice function of due process, Bratton gave squeegee derelicts, belligerent beggars, and fare beaters an opportunity to find religion before he and Giuliani forcibly restored order: “Get off drugs, get off the booze, get off your ass and get a job.” (Such plain talk would be a welcome antidote to today’s unhealthy indulgence for disorder.) 

As historian Fred Siegel explained in his masterful work on Giuliani’s mayoralty, Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life, Bratton informed the NYPD that the failed days of community policing, reactive law enforcement, and non-intervention were over. He offered “the rank and file a new deal. If they wanted to be crime fighters, he’d back them up to the hilt—as long as they were clean.” He expected results in return. Boldly, for a public administrator, Bratton demanded a reduction in crime of 10 percent for 1994. With the quality-of-life offensive unleashed, New York City’s crime rate fell “below the average of the state’s next five largest cities . . . until New York City had nearly 60% less crime than its in-state peers.” 

Broken-windows policing was one side of the coin, CompStat the other. Compstat (computer comparison statistics) is a program Bratton and his deputy, Jack Maple, implemented to systematically collect crime data, from the date, time, and place of a crime’s commission to the identity of the victim.  This allowed NYPD brass to discern patterns, locate troubled areas, share information within the bureaucracy, and flood problem areas with more police personnel or targeted crime-fighting strategies. Consequently, it increased accountability among precinct commanders who were responsible for knowing the details of crime patterns in their area and devising plans to combat them.  

As a result of these measures, crime dropped by 12 percent in 1994 (two percent more than Bratton’s stated goal) and 16 percent in 1995 and 1996. Although Giuliani eventually pushed Bratton out over personality differences, he continued his policies.

While violent crime peaked during Dinkins’s first year in office, it fell by 56 percent after Giuliani’s eight years as mayor. In human terms, people are alive today who would not be but for the Giuliani administration. In a 2007 retrospective on the mayor’s experience with race and politics, the New York Times summed up these extraordinary results: “Black New Yorkers appreciated safer neighborhoods and applauded that thousands more of their young men remained alive.”

The quality-of-life gains were no less impressive. Squeegee men disappeared, fare beaters spent a night in jail contemplating the cost-benefit analysis of their actions, graffiti was cleaned and discouraged, subways were safe, vagrancy was at manageable levels, and Times Square went from the crossroads of the smut world to one of the safest hubs of family-friendly entertainment in New York.

Giuliani, Moral Courage, and the Lessons of History  

Giuliani’s success did not happen by invisible external forces, legislation in Washington, or national economic trends. It happened by will and the moral courage to do what needed to be done to restore and maintain order. San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Portland, and, under de Blasio’s government, New York will find this is the most important lesson of Giuliani’s eight years as mayor. Citizens do not have to sidestep human feces and syringes, withstand the occasional unprovoked assault, or tolerate a rash of anti-Semitic attacks as the price of living in large urban centers when a morally confident mayor and an energetic police force have the means of arresting, prosecuting, and incapacitating this deviant behavior.

The Giuliani years are the story of a visionary leader who showed a city held hostage by fear that it did not have to live that way. Two complementary ideals operated in Giuliani’s mayoralty:  the virtue of courage—moral and, in some cases, physical—and the courage of principle. To rescue New York, he needed to harness his stubborn rectitude to rein in the dangerous classes. Only Giuliani could have waged such a successful legal and political assault on the public scourge of crime and disorder while battling the considerable forces of reactionary New York liberalism.

While the 75-year old Giuliani’s conduct in Ukraine may result in his indictment, his recent behavior in no way detracts from his eight years of leadership and strength that brought the greatest city in the world back from moral and social collapse. That is the legacy of Rudy Giuliani, and it will serve us well today as progressive mayors in America’s largest cities retreat to the discredited soft-on-crime policies that propelled him to City Hall in the first place.