Breaking Down the “Broken Windows” Theory

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

First introduced by George Kelling and James Wilson in 1982, the broken windows theory transformed the field of criminology. Writing in an Atlantic article, Kelling and Wilson claimed that “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” The theory thus suggests that visible signs of disorder in a neighborhood, such as vandalism or drinking, create an environment that encourages subsequent and more serious crime.

The broken windows theory assumes that the landscape communicates certain messages to people. The unrepaired window can signal, for example, that “no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” The theory rests heavily on the idea that informal social controls, such as societal disapproval or other pressures for conformity, play a role in deterring crime. Social disorder cause residents to feel unsafe, leading them to consequently adjust their behavior by withdrawing from society.

Kelling and Wilson note that it does not matter whether the residents’ notions of their safety are true or false. The key to broken windows theory rests not in the actuality of rising or declining crime rates, but in the citizens’ perceptions of their community’s conditions, as well as how they react to these perceptions. When citizens keep to themselves, the social controls and cohesion that were in place to keep crime in check weaken. The area thus becomes more vulnerable to further criminal invasion.

In this way, Kelling and Wilson suggest that deterring low-level, anti-social offenses can in turn prevent more serious crime. This interpretation heavily influenced policing policies in the 1980s and early 1990s, an era when the national crime rate was skyrocketing. In particular, New York City police commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani were two of the most prominent proponents of the theory, focusing on order-maintenance policing in an effort to tackle overall crime. Broken windows proponents note that between 1990 and 1998, murder in New York City decreased by 72 percent.

However, the broken windows theory remains controversial. Primarily, there lacks consensus on the actual efficacy of the theory—critics argue that there is no direct causal link between broken windows policing and drop in crime. They note that although crime did decline in New York City, the drop was part of a larger, nation-wide decrease of the crime rate, and cannot be attributed completely to Bratton’s application of the broken windows policy. Crime also dropped in several other cities where broken windows policing was not in place. In 2016, the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD reported that there was “no evidence that the drop in felony crime observed over the past six years was related to quality-of-life summonses.” The NYPD countered the OIG-NYPD’s claims, showing that the debate on the merits of the theory continues.

Broken windows policing also carry an ethical concern. Order-maintenance policing requires a large degree of police discretion over what qualifies as “public disorder,” a term that is defined differently across individuals. As such, there is broad room for prejudice, allowing racial, ethnic, or class-based biases to play a role. For example, a study found that people are more likely to deem black neighborhoods “disorderly” than non-black neighborhoods, even when controlling for the amount of graffiti, loitering, and litter. This reflects the fact that black people in the city are 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for low-level offenses which include disorderly conduct such as loitering and consuming in public. Broken windows policies can thus create a legal pathway for over-policing and discrimination, which is a concern especially for minorities who are already disproportionately targeted and overrepresented in the criminal system.

Further, a case study of broken windows policing in Newark revealed that the frequent stops by officers caused residents to distrust the police, which in turn led to a lower likelihood that individuals would cooperate when police were investigating more serious crime. Additionally, as the Newark system rewarded officers who made a larger number of arrests, police often targeted “convenient” individuals such as the elderly, disabled, or minorities. Broken windows policing thus has the danger of running contrary to its very purpose of countering crime—it could erode citizen faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement institutions and distract from actual crime-fighting by incentivizing police to focus on more petty offenses rather than serious ones.

It is important to note that Kelling and Wilson did not intend for their idea to be used to justify the policing practices that broken window theory has become emblematic of. Kelling in particular has stated that the theory is often misapplied. He had originally envisioned broken windows as part of a broader approach of community policing aimed at building trust between different the police and the residents, not tearing it down. Regardless, the theory has since then set off on a narrative apart from its creators’ original intentions, evolving in association with aggressive order-maintenance policing policies, the effects of which society still contends with today.

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