What Is the Broken Windows Theory?

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People walk past graffiti and "tags" along a wall in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on June 18, 2014 in New York City. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton made combating graffiti one of his top priorities as part of his "broken-windows theory" of policing. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The broken windows theory states that visible signs of crime in urban areas lead to further crime. The theory is often associated with the 2000 case of Illinois v. Wardlow, in which the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the police, based on the legal doctrine of probable cause, have the authority to detain and physically search, or “stop-and-frisk,” people in crime-prone neighborhoods who appear to be behaving suspiciously.

Key Takeaways: Broken Windows Theory

  • The broken windows theory of criminology holds that visible signs of crime in densely-populated, lower-income urban areas will encourage additional criminal activity.
  • Broken windows neighborhood policing tactics employ heightened enforcement of relatively minor “quality of life” crimes like loitering, public drinking, and graffiti.
  • The theory has been criticized for encouraging discriminatory police practices, such as unequal enforcement based on racial profiling.

Broken Windows Theory Definition

In the field of criminology, the broken windows theory holds that lingering visible evidence of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil unrest in densely populated urban areas suggests a lack of active local law enforcement and encourages people to commit further, even more serious crimes.

The theory was first suggested in 1982 by social scientist, George L. Kelling in his article, “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety” published in The Atlantic. Kelling explained the theory as follows:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
“Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

Kelling based his theory on the results of an experiment conducted by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1969. In his experiment, Zimbardo parked an apparently disabled and abandoned car in a low-income area of the Bronx, New York City, and a similar car in an affluent Palo Alto, California neighborhood. Within 24 hours, everything of value had been stolen from the car in the Bronx. Within a few days, vandals had smashed the car’s windows and ripped out the upholstery. At the same time, the car abandoned in Palo Alto remained untouched for over a week, until Zimbardo himself smashed it with a sledgehammer. Soon, other people Zimbardo described as mostly well dressed, “clean-cut” Caucasians joined in the vandalism. Zimbardo concluded that in high-crime areas like the Bronx, where such abandoned property is commonplace, vandalism and theft occur far faster as the community takes such acts for granted. However, similar crimes can occur in any community when the people’s mutual regard for proper civil behavior is lowered by actions that suggest a general lack of concern.

Kelling concluded that by selectively targeting minor crimes like vandalism, public intoxication, and loitering, police can establish an atmosphere of civil order and lawfulness, thus helping to prevent more serious crimes.

Broken Windows Policing

In1993, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and police commissioner William Bratton cited Kelling and his broken windows theory as a basis for implementing a new “tough-stance” policy aggressively addressing relatively minor crimes seen as negatively affecting the quality of life in the inner-city.

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Bratton directed NYPD to step up enforcement of laws against crimes like public drinking, public urination, and graffiti. He also cracked down on so-called “squeegee men,” vagrants who aggressively demand payment at traffic stops for unsolicited car window washings. Reviving a Prohibition-era city ban on dancing in unlicensed establishments, police controversially shuttered many of the city’s night clubs with records of public disturbances.

While studies of New York’s crime statistics conducted between 2001 and 2017 suggested that enforcement policies based on the broken windows theory were effective in reducing rates of both minor and serious crimes, other factors may have also contributed to the result. For example, New York’s crime decrease may have simply been part of a nationwide trend that saw other major cities with different policing practices experience similar decreases over the period. In addition, New York City’s 39% drop in the unemployment rate could have contributed to the reduction in crime.

In 2005, police in the Boston suburb of Lowell, Massachusetts, identified 34 “crime hot spots” fitting the broken windows theory profile. In 17 of the spots, police made more misdemeanor arrests, while other city authorities cleared trash, fixed streetlights, and enforced building codes. In the other 17 spots, no changes in routine procedures were made. While the areas given special attention saw a 20% reduction in police calls, a study of the experiment concluded that simply cleaning up the physical environment had been more effective than an increase in misdemeanor arrests.

Today, however, five major U.S. cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Denver—all acknowledge employing at least some neighborhood policing tactics based on Kelling’s broken windows theory. In all of these cities, police stress aggressive enforcement of minor misdemeanor laws.

Critics

Despite its popularity in major cities, police policy based on the broken windows theory is not without its critics, who question both its effectiveness and fairness of application.

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In 2005, University of Chicago Law School professor Bernard Harcourt published a study finding no evidence that broken windows policing actually reduces crime. “We don’t deny that the ‘broken windows’ idea seems compelling,” wrote Harcourt. “The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work as claimed in practice.”

Specifically, Harcourt contended that crime data from New York City’s 1990s application of broken windows policing had been misinterpreted. Though the NYPD had realized greatly reduced crime rates in the broken windows enforcement areas, the same areas had also been the areas worst affected by the crack-cocaine epidemic that caused citywide homicide rates to soar. “Everywhere crime skyrocketed as a result of crack, there were eventual declines once the crack epidemic ebbed,” Harcourt note. “This is true for police precincts in New York and for cities across the country.” In short, Harcourt contended that New York’s declines in crime during the 1990s were both predictable and would have happened with or without broken windows policing.

Harcourt concluded that for most cities, the costs of broken windows policing outweigh the benefits. “In our opinion, focusing on minor misdemeanors is a diversion of valuable police funding and time from what really seems to help—targeted police patrols against violence, gang activity and gun crimes in the highest-crime ‘hot spots.’”

Broken windows policing has also been criticized for its potential to encourage unequal, potentially discriminatory enforcement practices such as racial profiling, too often with disastrous results.

Arising from objections to practices like “Stop-and-Frisk,” critics point to the case of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man killed by a New York City police officer in 2014. After observing Garner standing on a street corner in a high-crime area of Staten Island, police suspected him of selling “loosies,” untaxed cigarettes. When, according to the police report, Garner resisted arrest, an officer took him to the ground in a chock hold. An hour later, Garner died in the hospital of what the coroner determined to be homicide resulting from, “Compression of neck, compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” After a grand jury failed to indict the officer involved, anti-police protests broke out in several cities.

Since then, and due to the deaths of other unarmed black men accused of minor crimes predominantly by white police officers, more sociologists and criminologists have questioned the effects of broken windows theory policing. Critics argue that it is racially discriminatory, as police statistically tend to view, and thus, target, non-whites as suspects in low-income, high-crime areas.

According to Paul Larkin, Senior Legal Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, established historic evidence shows that persons of color are more likely than whites to be detained, questioned, searched, and arrested by police. Larkin suggests that this happens more often in areas chosen for broken windows-based policing due to a combination of: the individual’s race, police officers being tempted to stop minority suspects because they statistically appear to commit more crimes, and the tacit approval of those practices by police officials.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Wilson, James Q; Kelling, George L (Mar 1982), “.” The Atlantic.
  • Harcourt, Bernard E. “.” University of Chicago Law Review (June 2005).
  • Fagan, Jeffrey and Davies, Garth. “.” Fordham Urban Law Journal (2000).
  • Taibbi, Matt. “.” Rolling Stone (November 2018).
  • Herbert, Steve; Brown, Elizabeth (September 2006). “.” Antipode.
  • Larkin, Paul. “.” The Heritage Foundation.