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What is the Broken Windows Theory?

By Mike Howells
Updated May 16, 2024
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The broken windows theory is the idea that serious and violent crime can be reduced in an urban area through the strict enforcement of lesser crimes such as graffiti, skipping subway fare, and vandalism. It was first drawn up in the early 1980s. Though successfully implemented in many localities, most famously in New York City, the theory has its critics as well.

James Wilson and George Kelling, two American social scientists, published a magazine article in 1982 that argued a building with several broken windows already is prone to have more windows broken by vandals. They said this building is also going to be more likely to be broken into and further vandalized, or even become a home for squatters. Their point was that fixing those first broken windows would prevent the escalation of damage to the building. Wilson and Kelling's idea drew a lot of debate and soon came to be known as the broken windows theory.

At its core, the idea relies on a trio of sociological theories - conformity, the effect of monitoring, and the concept of signaling. Conformity is the idea that people tend to do what others around them are doing. Someone walking down the street eating a hamburger, for example, is less likely to throw the wrapper in a trash can if the sidewalk is already strewn with hamburger wrappers from other people who have chosen to litter. An area clean from litter indicates to a person that there are rules against littering and that they are followed, monitored and enforced. In districts where there cannot be a constant law presence, things such as litter-free sidewalks signal that there is nevertheless an orderly environment being maintained.

Broken windows theory was applied in New York City beginning in 1984, when Kelling was hired as a consultant and put his ideas to the test. Graffiti in and around the city subway system was focused on, as well as the practice of skipping subway fares. Rudy Guiliani, who was elected mayor in 1993, embraced the strategy and expanded it into a larger zero-tolerance policy. In addition to fare skipping and graffiti, law enforcement focused on stopping other minor crimes such as public intoxication and the unsolicited windshield washing of stopped cars by homeless people.

As a result of New York's efforts to enforce the tenets of broken windows theory, the levels of both petty and serious crime in the city dropped tangibly through the 1990s and 2000s. Similar success has resulted in other places where the theory has been applied, including cities in New Mexico, Massachusetts and the Netherlands. Despite such evidence, criticism of broken windows theory remains, however.

The biggest concern among critics is that there is simply a correlation between stronger enforcement of petty crimes and decreased serious crimes, rather than a direct causation. In the case of New York City, there were a number of coincidental events that took place around the same time that the theory was implemented that critics argue could account for the drop in crime. Peer-reviewed cases both for and against broken windows theory continue to be made into the 21st century, as more and more cities adopt the approach.

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Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Feb 20, 2011

It's not that order maintenance policing doesn't work. It actually does work but it has negative consequences which is why some experts and politicians don't think it should be used.

This theory is a tough one to prove. It takes a lot of knowledge about many other theories on human and criminal behavior to understand it fully. I would recommend reading about the differential association theory but I barely got through it and I'm doing a masters in this field. Basically, it says that someone is not born a criminal but rather learns to be a criminal. And this is exactly what order maintenance policing targets. They want to maintain an order that does not promote criminal activity. But it can end up doing more harm than good.

Just think about it, if aggressive force is used for specific minor offenses in a city, you are going to end up focusing this activity against a group of people, probably a minority. They are going to feel that they are being targeted and discriminated against. So even though you decrease crime by deterring people before they do anything, you are probably creating more problems for law enforcement in the long run.

These unwanted consequences of the broken windows theory might be diminished if its backed up by social and governance programs or if it is applied in a different manner that doesn't appear to target certain groups. Otherwise, it will be seen as offensive and discriminatory rather than beneficial.

By fify — On Feb 18, 2011

My brother was a member of New York City Law Enforcement when they instated this theory. It was called "the quality of life policing initiative" but my brother refers to it as "order maintenance policing" or OMP. The initiative was basically a mass surveillance of city residents and they hired more police officers in order to do that.

I honestly don't know the details of the initiative or why critics say it doesn't work. I had seen a couple of articles which argued that if the theory worked, they should have seen the lowest crime rates where the highest numbers of police officers were.

I don't think there is widespread acceptance that broken windows policing works or doesn't work because there is evidence that goes both ways. I think they need to try it out in more places and compare the results.

By candyquilt — On Feb 17, 2011

This theory sounds like a great idea. I think people definitely engage in more crime when they see others getting away with it. There were some petty crimes, public intoxication, etc happening in our neighborhood in the past few years. After a retired governor moved to the neighborhood (along with his 24 hour police watchmen), all of these activities have stopped. I do think that when criminals perceive that there is law enforcement, they will be scared to do something that will get them in trouble. I'm sure there are some other factors involved that I don't know too much about. For example, if the punishment is not appropriate for the crime, it might not have the right effect. But overall, I feel like this criminology theory would work. I don't understand why there was so much criticism.

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