Introduced by an article in the Atlantic more than three decades ago and embraced in New York a few years later, the "broken windows" theory isn't cutting-edge criminology. But the SEPTA police force's much more recent adoption of the approach is as auspicious as it is belated.
The theory holds that tolerance of minor crimes such as vandalism contributes to more general and serious disorder. Cracking down on petty violations should therefore pay public-safety dividends that go beyond the nuisances themselves. When William Bratton made this idea his policy as head of New York's transit police in the 1980s, his chief targets included fare beaters - small-time scofflaws who contribute to a poisonous atmosphere of lawlessness.
Last year, SEPTA's police force arrested some 3,000 turnstile jumpers on the city's subway and elevated lines, a more than fivefold increase over the prior year, The Inquirer reported this week. Arrests for smoking and other minor offenses more than doubled. Meanwhile, reports of more serious property and violent crimes - cellphone thefts being the most numerous - dropped 14 percent.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III, a former Philadelphia officer and suburban police chief with a master's in criminology, has overseen the strategy shift since he took over the force in 2012. He has also added cameras and deployed more officers to the most troubled stations and concourses.
With SEPTA looking forward to an infusion of capital funds, a long-overdue upgrade of its Triassic token technology, and an experiment with overnight service, Nestel and his force are doing the system and the city a sorely needed service.