Northeastern University researchers find little evidence for ‘broken windows theory,’ say neighborhood disorder doesn’t cause crime

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broken window theory debunked

More than 35 years ago, researchers theorized that graffiti, abandoned buildings, panhandling, and other signs of disorder in neighborhoods create an environment that leads people to commit more crime.

In the “broken windows theory,” as it has come to be known, such characteristics convey the message that these places aren’t monitored and crime will go unpunished. The theory has led police to crack down on minor crimes with the idea that this will prevent more serious crimes, and inspired research on how disorder affects people’s health.

Now, Northeastern researchers say they have debunked the “broken windows theory.” In research published in the Annual Review of Criminology and in Social Science & Medicine , they have found that disorder in a neighborhood doesn’t cause people to break the law, commit more crimes, have a lower opinion of their neighborhoods, or participate in dangerous or unhealthy behavior.

“The body of evidence for the broken windows theory does not stand, in terms of how disorder impacts individuals,” said Daniel T. O’Brien , associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern.

The methodology behind the findings

O’Brien and his research colleagues— Brandon Welsh , a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern, and doctoral student Chelsea Farrell—conducted two studies. One, published in Annual Review of Criminology, focused on whether disorder affects crime. The other, published in Social Science & Medicine , focused on the impact of disorder on public health.

O’Brien outlined the findings of both studies in an article published in April by the Scholars Strategy Network , an organization that connects journalists, policymakers, and civic leaders with researchers.

They wanted to see if the “broken windows theory” holds up. They sought answers to two questions: Does disorder cause crime, and does it have an impact on public health?

The researchers discovered that disorder in a neighborhood does not cause its residents to commit more crime. They found “no consistent evidence that disorder induces higher levels of aggression or makes residents feel more negative toward the neighborhood,” they wrote in their paper in the Annual Review of Criminology .

They also did not find that these signs of physical and social disrepair discourage people from exercising outside or encourage people to engage in unprotected sex.

However, the researchers did find a connection between disorder and mental health. They found that people who live in neighborhoods with more graffiti, abandoned buildings, and other such attributes experience more mental health problems and are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. But they say that this greater likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol is associated with mental health, and is not directly caused by disorder.

The “broken windows theory” was developed by criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson, who wrote a 7,000-word article in The Atlantic in 1982 in which they argued that maintaining order and preventing crime go hand in hand. Kelling died on May 15 at the age of 83 .

O’Brien and his colleagues used a procedure called meta-analysis to conduct their research. This means that they searched online research databases to find studies to include in their research, tested and recorded the results of each study, and pooled all those results together in order to draw a conclusion about the “broken windows theory.”

The researchers analyzed nearly 300 studies that examined the effects of at least one element of neighborhood disorder (say, graffiti or public drunkenness) on at least one outcome at the individual level (say, committing a violent crime or using drugs).

They then tested the effect that disorder was found to have on residents in each study. In the crime study, they tested to what extent disorder led people to commit crime, made them more fearful of crime in their neighborhoods, and affected their perceptions of their neighborhoods. In the health study, they tested whether disorder affected whether people exercised outdoors, experienced mental health problems, or engaged in risky behavior, including abusing drugs and alcohol or having unprotected sex.

O’Brien says that his team took into account the research methods used in each study in order to assess whether its design led researchers to find more evidence for the “broken windows theory” than there actually was.

broken window theory debunked

Dan O’Brien. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The Northeastern researchers say that they found two widespread flaws in how past studies that found evidence for the broken windows theory were designed. These flaws, they say, led to conclusions that overstated the impact that elements of neighborhood disorder had on crime and health.

The first flaw, they say, is that many studies didn’t account for important variables, including the income levels of households in the neighborhoods that were analyzed. O’Brien says that past research has found that the more poverty there is in a neighborhood, the more crime and disorder occurs there. His team’s meta-analysis revealed that the studies that didn’t account for socio-economic status found a stronger connection between disorder and crime than those that did account for the income levels of residents.

The second flaw, the say, relates to how researchers measured the levels of disorder in neighborhoods. O’Brien says that many studies evaluated disorder by surveying residents who were asked to assess how well their neighborhoods are maintained and either whether they worried about crime or suffered from mental health problems.

O’Brien says that the results of these surveys can be unreliable because people’s perception of the disorder in their neighborhoods may be intertwined with their assessments of crime as well as how they describe their own mental or physical health. The studies in which residents were asked both of these questions yielded the strongest evidence in favor of the broken windows theory. But studies in which researchers visited the neighborhoods and observed signs of disorder for themselves found less evidence to support the theory.

‘There are other ways to think about disorder’

O’Brien says that his team’s findings have significant implications. He says that policing and public health strategies shouldn’t be based on the idea that disorder causes people to break the law or participate in dangerous or unhealthy behavior.

But he also says that disorder, if studied in a more precise way, can provide valuable insight into what’s happening in neighborhoods and inform public policy.

“There are other ways to think about disorder,” says O’Brien, who co-directs the Boston Area Research Initiative , which is based at Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “It’s not to say we should look at neighborhoods and say, ‘You know, graffiti and abandoned buildings don’t matter.’ It’s that they matter, but they didn’t matter in a way that the broken windows theory claims that they do.”

For media inquiries , please contact Shannon Nargi at [email protected].

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How a 50-year-old study was misconstrued to create destructive broken-windows policing

The harmful policy was built on a shaky foundation..

broken window theory debunked

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of a study that unwittingly contributed to the violent and racialized policing that dominates our criminal justice system today. In 1969, social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo published research that became the basis for the controversial broken-windows theory of policing, which emerged in a 1982 Atlantic article penned by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. These two social scientists used the Zimbardo article as the sole empirical evidence for their theory, arguing, “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

The problem? Wilson and Kelling distorted the study to suit their purposes. In short, the broken-windows theory was founded on a lie.

Even in the face of direct and damning challenges by the Movement for Black Lives and scholars of policing , the broken-windows theory has maintained its hold on police precincts across the nation. Most recently, broken windows has seen a resurgence in the subways of New York, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority police doubled down on its assault against fare evasion.

By laying bare the fabrications at the foundation of the broken-windows theory, we can see what critics have long alleged and what those targeted by the policy have known to be true: By focusing on low-level offenses, this theory of policing works to criminalize communities of color and expand mass incarceration without making people safer.

This isn’t what Zimbardo set out to do. In the immediate wake of the 1960s urban uprisings, Zimbardo wanted to document the social causes of vandalism to disprove the conservative argument that it stemmed from individual or cultural pathology. His research team parked an Oldsmobile in the South Bronx and Palo Alto, Calif., surveilling the cars for days. Zimbardo hypothesized that the informal economies of the Bronx would make quick work of the car.

He was right.

Although the research team was surprised that the first “vandals” were not youths of color but, rather, a white, “well-dressed” family, Zimbardo considered his basic hypothesis confirmed: The lack of community cohesion in the Bronx produced a sense of “anonymity,” which in turn generated vandalism. He concluded, “Conditions that create social inequality and put some people outside of the conventional reward structure of the society make them indifferent to its sanctions, laws, and implicit norms.”

The Palo Alto Oldsmobile, in contrast, went untouched. After a week-long, unremarkable stakeout, Zimbardo drove the car to the Stanford campus, where his research team aimed to “prime” vandalism by taking a sledgehammer to its windows. Upon discovering that this was “stimulating and pleasurable,” Zimbardo and his graduate students “got carried away.” As Zimbardo described it, “One student jumped on the roof and began stomping it in, two were pulling the door from its hinges, another hammered away at the hood and motor, while the last one broke all the glass he could find.” The passersby the study had intended to observe had turned into spectators and only joined in after the car was already wrecked.

Zimbardo’s conclusions were the stuff of liberal criminology: Anyone — even Stanford researchers! — could be lured into vandalism, and this was particularly true in places like the Bronx with heightened social inequalities. For Zimbardo, what happened in the Bronx and at Stanford suggested that crowd mentality, social inequalities and community anonymity could prompt “good citizens” to act destructively. This was no radical critique; it was an indictment of law-and-order politics that viewed vandalism as a senseless, unpardonable act. In a line that could have been lifted directly out of the countless “riot reports” published in the late 1960s, Zimbardo asserted, “Vandalism is a rebellion with a cause.”

Zimbardo’s study claimed little immediate impact outside academic circles. Almost 15 years later, Wilson and Kelling gave it new life, building their broken-windows theory atop a fundamental misrepresentation of Zimbardo’s experiment. In Wilson and Kelling’s account, Zimbardo’s experiment proved that “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

Their misleading recap of Zimbardo’s study not only conflated the Stanford and Palo Alto experiments but also so distorted the order of events that it routed readers away from Zimbardo’s conclusions. In their version, “the car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in.” What they conveniently neglected to mention was that the researchers themselves had laid waste to the car.

By omitting this crucial detail, Wilson and Kelling manipulated Zimbardo’s experiment to draw a straight line between one broken window and “a thousand broken windows.” This enabled them to claim that all it took was a broken window to transform “staid” Palo Alto into the Bronx, where “no one car[ed].” The problem is, it wasn’t a broken window that enticed onlookers to join the fray; it was the spectacle of faculty and students destroying an Oldsmobile in the middle of Stanford’s campus. In place of Zimbardo’s critique of inequality and anonymity, Wilson and Kelling had invented a broken window and invested it with the ability to spur vandalism.

Why would Wilson and Kelling go through the trouble of introducing Zimbardo’s study only to misrepresent it? Because what they got out of the study was not its empirical evidence, but the evocative, racialized image of the Bronx’s broken windows, which had already been drilled into the national psyche.

During the 1970s, journalists frequently invoked the South Bronx as “the American urban problem in microcosm,” in the words of one New York Times article. These reports about the Bronx featured photographs of empty-eyed tenements and opened with lines like “abandoned buildings, with smoke stains flaring up from their blind and broken windows.” Media outlets thereby weaponized the broken windows of the Bronx as a symbol of urban and racial degeneration.

So potent and “unnerving” was the symbol of the broken window that one of the few municipal housing initiatives in the early-1980s Bronx was devoted to papering over empty window frames that faced commuters on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The vinyl decals the city installed depicted “a lived-in look of curtains, shades, shutters and flowerpots.”

It was the symbol of the “unnerving” broken window that Wilson and Kelling sought to fold into their theory. In their telling, the Bronx’s “thousand broken windows” were juxtaposed with Palo Alto’s one. For them, the danger was proliferation — the creation of many Bronxes — through small signs of disorder. The racist subtext rang loud and clear. Citing Zimbardo’s experiment allowed Wilson and Kelling to sound alarms over the possibility that all cities would go the way of the Bronx if they didn’t embrace their new regime of policing. What was missing, of course, was Zimbardo’s restrained, but resolute, focus on structural causation and systemic inequality.

By exploiting this set of fears and meanings, the broken-windows theory gained currency in policy circles and police precincts across the nation and globe. Accordingly, to “ dislodge this boulder ,” in the words of prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we need to challenge its intellectual foundations head-on. The movement against this criminological cockroach has largely drawn attention to the violence that broken windows policing has inflicted on communities of color. This is urgent and essential work, which can be bolstered by the project of exposing and then obliterating the shaky intellectual ground upon which it stands.

From its origins to its ruinous rise, the broken-windows theory was just that — broken. It’s time to tear it down.

The Problem with “Broken Windows” Policing

A child walks past graffiti in New York City in 2014. New Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has made combating graffiti one of his top priorities, as part of the Broken Windows theory of policing.

A child walks past graffiti in New York City in 2014. New Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has made combating graffiti one of his top priorities, as part of the Broken Windows theory of policing. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

For years, police in Newark, N.J. regularly handed out citations to residents for minor offenses.

Known as “blue summonses,” the citations were intended to curb crime in a city rife with violence. Officers who racked up high tallies were rewarded with better assignments and overtime, according to police and federal officials.

Ultimately, police and residents said, the practice damaged the Newark PD’s relationship with the minority community and did little to reduce crime. It also helped lead to federal intervention in the police department last year.

Newark’s blue summonses were rooted in the 1980s-era theory known as “Broken Windows,” which argues that maintaining order by policing low-level offenses can prevent more serious crimes.

But in cities where Broken Windows has taken root, there’s little evidence that it’s worked as intended. The theory has instead resulted in what critics say is aggressive over-policing of minority communities, which often creates more problems than it solves. Such practices can strain criminal justice systems, burden impoverished people with fines for minor offenses, and fracture the relationship between police and minorities. It can also lead to tragedy: In New York in 2014, Eric Garner died from a police chokehold after officers approached him for selling loose cigarettes on a street corner.

Today, Newark and other cities have been compelled to re-think their approach to policing. But there are few easy solutions, and no quick way to repair years of distrust between police and the communities they serve.

How Broken Windows Began

Although it was first practiced in New York City, the idea of Broken Windows originated across the river in Newark, during a study by criminologist George Kelling. He found that introducing foot patrols in the city improved the relationship between police and black residents, and reduced their fear of crime. Together with colleague James Wilson, he wrote an influential 1982 article in The Atlantic , where the pair used the analogy that a broken window, left unattended, would signal that no one cared and ultimately lead to more disorder and even crime.

Kelling has since said that the theory has often been misapplied. He said that he envisioned Broken Windows as a tactic in a broader effort in community policing. Officers should use their discretion to enforce public order laws much as police do during traffic stops, he said. So an officer might issue a warning to someone drinking in public, or talk to kids skateboarding in a park about finding another place to play. Summons and arrests are only one tool, he said.

Kelling told FRONTLINE that over the years, as he began to hear about chiefs around the country adopting Broken Windows as a broad policy, he thought two words: “Oh s–t.”

“You’re just asking for a whole lot of trouble,” Kelling said. “You don’t just say one day, ‘Go out and restore order.’ You train officers, you develop guidelines. Any officer who really wants to do order maintenance has to be able to answer satisfactorily the question, ‘Why do you decide to arrest one person who’s urinating in public and not arrest [another]?’ … And if you can’t answer that question, if you just say ‘Well, it’s common sense,’ you get very, very worried.”

“So yeah,” he said. “There’s been a lot of things done in the name of Broken Windows that I regret.”

The Crime Debate

In practice, Broken Windows has come to be synonymous with misdemeanor arrests and summonses. In New York, the largest city to implement the practice, between 2010 and 2015, police issued 1.8 million quality of life summonses for offenses like disorderly conduct, public urination, and drinking or possessing small amounts of marijuana. Felony crime rates, meanwhile, declined.

But a report released last week by the New York Police Department’s inspector general’s office found “no evidence” that the drop in felony crime during those six years was linked to the quality of life summonses or misdemeanor arrests, which also declined during that time.

“That’s basically what we’ve been finding for years — a lack of any evidence of an effect,” said Bernard Harcourt, a Columbia Law School professor who has conducted two major studies on the impact of Broken Windows in New York and other cities.

The NYPD, led by Police Commissioner William Bratton, an early supporter of Broken Windows, said in a statement  that the inspector general’s study was “deeply flawed” because it only examined arrests and summonses, not the agency’s broader quality-of-life efforts. Kelling, who has used  misdemeanor arrests  to evaluate the theory, wouldn’t comment on the study, saying he’s still a consultant to the department.

Defining Disorder

Some policing experts say that Broken Windows is a flawed theory, in part because of the focus on disorder. Kelling argues that in order to determine how to police a community, residents should identify their top concerns, and police should — assuming those issues are legitimate — patrol accordingly.

But disorder doesn’t look the same to everyone, Harcourt said. “Definitions about what is orderly or disorderly or needs to be ticketed, etc., are often loaded — racially loaded, culturally loaded, politically loaded,” he said. He cited New York’s recent decision to crack down on subway performers , who are often young black men, as an example.

Giving police discretion to enforce public order laws, he added, “becomes extraordinarily problematic because of racial, ethnic and class-based biases, and including implicit biases” that can come into play.

Linking disorder and crime can also change the way officers perceive residents, by creating the assumption that those committing minor offenses may do something worse if they’re not sanctioned, said David Thacher, a criminologist and professor at the University of Michigan.

“Broken Windows frames trivial misbehavior as the beginning of something much more serious,” Thacher said. “And I worry that that encourages the police to see a broader and broader swath of the people they’re policing as bad guys.”

It can also lead police to use minor offenses inappropriately as a pretext to search for more serious contraband, like guns or drugs, he said.

Newark’s Blue Summonses

In Newark, police saw the effect of blue summonses on their community first-hand. James Stewart, president of Newark’s Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union, told FRONTLINE that the frequent stops and citations made people mistrust the police, and much less likely to cooperate when officers were investigating serious crimes.

But, he added, because officers who racked up summonses were chosen for plum assignments, many felt they didn’t have much of a choice.

To boost their summonses numbers, residents said, officers often chose “convenient targets,” including the elderly, or those with mental illnesses or disabilities, according to a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department. Those cited also appeared to be disproportionately black or Latino.

“[I]f you were to look at the blue summonses… the vast majority of them are issued to people in their 50s or 60s or maybe even older,” Stewart said. “Are they really the group of people that are committing the violent crimes here in Newark? You know, I would think not. But in order to get more numbers, the cops go after these people.”

Ryan Haygood, an attorney and longtime Newark resident, argued that officers shouldn’t have to overstep the law to maintain order.

“I don’t see an inconsistency with respecting people’s constitutional rights and protecting public safety,” he told FRONTLINE. “In our area we do have neighbors who have been victimized in violent ways by crime. But it doesn’t mean that police officers can, in three out of four of the stops, violate people’s constitutional rights.”

Meanwhile, he added, the department’s efforts have done little to make the community safer. In its investigation, the Justice Department also questioned the practice’s impact on crime reduction.

What Comes Next

Is there a way to conduct order-focused policing in black and Latino communities — asking officers to deal with the kid skateboarding recklessly in the park, the guys loitering on the corner — without criminalizing the people who live there?

Activists with the Black Lives Matter movement say no. They’ve called for an end to enforcing — or at least criminalizing — minor offenses.

Policing experts don’t go that far. But most today, as well as the Justice Department and President Barack Obama’s task force on policing , recommend that police embrace a broader notion of community policing, which requires officers to get to know the people they serve and respond more directly to their needs. While it didn’t specifically address Broken Windows policing, the task force noted that police should adopt policies that emphasize community engagement and trust.

That’s already happening in a few places.

In New York this month, the city council passed a bill requiring police to establish written guidance on how officers should use their discretion to enforce certain quality-of-life offenses, such as littering and unreasonable noise. It also allows officers to issue civil summonses to avoid routing people through the criminal justice system for minor offenses.

Cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and New Haven, Conn. have introduced foot patrols, which can allow officers to engage more closely with residents.

Portland , Ore. and Seattle  — both cities under a reform agreement with the Justice Department — have placed a renewed emphasis on community policing, including encouraging officers to conduct foot patrols. In Seattle, overall approval ratings for the police have risen, although they remain stagnant with African-Americans. Last year, an independent assessment in Portland found that overall, 70 percent of residents said they would be treated fairly by police, but that African-Americans in particular remained concerned about discrimination and excessive force.

In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka told FRONTLINE that the police department will return to what he called “neighborhood policing.” As part of the mandated reform process, officers are being re-trained, and given more accountability.

The goal is to have officers “who know people’s grandmothers, who know the institutions of the community, who look at people as human beings, right?” Baraka said. “And so that’s the beginning of it. If you don’t look at the people you are policing as human, then you begin to treat them inhumanely.”

Additional reporting by Anya Bourg and James Jacoby of FRONTLINE’s Enterprise Journalism Group.

Funding for the Enterprise Journalism Group is provided by the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Douglas Drane Family Fund.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress , Former Series Senior Editor , FRONTLINE

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How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong

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broken window theory debunked

The broken windows theory of policing suggested that cleaning up the visible signs of disorder — like graffiti, loitering, panhandling and prostitution — would prevent more serious crime as well. Getty Images/Image Source hide caption

The broken windows theory of policing suggested that cleaning up the visible signs of disorder — like graffiti, loitering, panhandling and prostitution — would prevent more serious crime as well.

In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University, ran an interesting field study. He abandoned two cars in two very different places: one in a mostly poor, crime-ridden section of New York City, and the other in a fairly affluent neighborhood of Palo Alto, Calif. Both cars were left without license plates and parked with their hoods up.

After just 10 minutes, passersby in New York City began vandalizing the car. First they stripped it for parts. Then the random destruction began. Windows were smashed. The car was destroyed. But in Palo Alto, the other car remained untouched for more than a week.

Finally, Zimbardo did something unusual: He took a sledgehammer and gave the California car a smash. After that, passersby quickly ripped it apart, just as they'd done in New York.

This field study was a simple demonstration of how something that is clearly neglected can quickly become a target for vandals. But it eventually morphed into something far more than that. It became the basis for one of the most influential theories of crime and policing in America: "broken windows."

Thirteen years after the Zimbardo study, criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote an article for The Atlantic . They were fascinated by what had happened to Zimbardo's abandoned cars and thought the findings could be applied on a larger scale, to entire communities.

"The idea [is] that once disorder begins, it doesn't matter what the neighborhood is, things can begin to get out of control," Kelling tells Hidden Brain.

In the article, Kelling and Wilson suggested that a broken window or other visible signs of disorder or decay — think loitering, graffiti, prostitution or drug use — can send the signal that a neighborhood is uncared for. So, they thought, if police departments addressed those problems, maybe the bigger crimes wouldn't happen.

"Once you begin to deal with the small problems in neighborhoods, you begin to empower those neighborhoods," says Kelling. "People claim their public spaces, and the store owners extend their concerns to what happened on the streets. Communities get strengthened once order is restored or maintained, and it is that dynamic that helps to prevent crime."

Kelling and Wilson proposed that police departments change their focus. Instead of channeling most resources into solving major crimes, they should instead try to clean up the streets and maintain order — such as keeping people from smoking pot in public and cracking down on subway fare beaters.

The argument came at an opportune time, says Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt.

"This was a period of high crime, and high incarceration, and it seemed there was no way out of that dynamic. It seemed as if there was no way out of just filling prisons to address the crime problem."

An Idea Moves From The Ivory Tower To The Streets

As policymakers were scrambling for answers, a new mayor in New York City came to power offering a solution.

Rudy Giuliani won election in 1993, promising to reduce crime and clean up the streets. Very quickly, he adopted broken windows as his mantra.

It was one of those rare ideas that appealed to both sides of the aisle.

Conservatives liked the policy because it meant restoring order. Liberals liked it, Harcourt says, because it seemed like an enlightened way to prevent crime: "It seemed like a magical solution. It allowed everybody to find a way in their own mind to get rid of the panhandler, the guy sleeping on the street, the prostitute, the drugs, the litter, and it allowed liberals to do that while still feeling self-righteous and good about themselves."

Giuliani and his new police commissioner, William Bratton, focused first on cleaning up the subway system, where 250,000 people a day weren't paying their fare. They sent hundreds of police officers into the subways to crack down on turnstile jumpers and vandals.

Very quickly, they found confirmation for their theory. Going after petty crime led the police to violent criminals, says Kelling: "Not all fare beaters were criminals, but a lot of criminals were fare beaters. It turns out serious criminals are pretty busy. They commit minor offenses as well as major offenses."

The policy was quickly scaled up from the subway to the entire city of New York.

Police ramped up misdemeanor arrests for things like smoking marijuana in public, spraying graffiti and selling loose cigarettes. And almost instantly, they were able to trumpet their success. Crime was falling. The murder rate plummeted. It seemed like a miracle.

The media loved the story, and Giuliani cruised to re-election in 1997.

George Kelling and a colleague did follow-up research on broken windows policing and found what they believed was clear evidence of its success. In neighborhoods where there was a sharp increase in misdemeanor arrests — suggesting broken windows policing was in force — there was also a sharp decline in crime.

By 2001, broken windows had become one of Giuliani's greatest accomplishments. In his farewell address, he emphasized the beautiful and simple idea behind the success.

"The broken windows theory replaced the idea that we were too busy to pay attention to street-level prostitution, too busy to pay attention to panhandling, too busy to pay attention to graffiti," he said. "Well, you can't be too busy to pay attention to those things, because those are the things that underlie the problems of crime that you have in your society."

Questions Begin To Emerge About Broken Windows

Right from the start, there were signs something was wrong with the beautiful narrative.

"Crime was starting to go down in New York prior to the Giuliani election and prior to the implementation of broken windows policing," says Harcourt, the Columbia law professor. "And of course what we witnessed from that period, basically from about 1991, was that the crime in the country starts going down, and it's a remarkable drop in violent crime in this country. Now, what's so remarkable about it is how widespread it was."

Harcourt points out that crime dropped not only in New York, but in many other cities where nothing like broken windows policing was in place. In fact, crime even fell in parts of the country where police departments were mired in corruption scandals and largely viewed as dysfunctional, such as Los Angeles.

"Los Angeles is really interesting because Los Angeles was wracked with terrible policing problems during the whole time, and crime drops as much in Los Angeles as it does in New York," says Harcourt.

There were lots of theories to explain the nationwide decline in crime. Some said it was the growing economy or the end of the crack cocaine epidemic. Some criminologists credited harsher sentencing guidelines.

In 2006, Harcourt found the evidence supporting the broken windows theory might be flawed. He reviewed the study Kelling had conducted in 2001, and found the areas that saw the largest number of misdemeanor arrests also had the biggest drops in violent crime.

Harcourt says the earlier study failed to consider what's called a "reversion to the mean."

"It's something that a lot of investment bankers and investors know about because it's well-known and in the stock market," says Harcourt. "Basically, the idea is if something goes up a lot, it tends to go down a lot."

A graph in Kelling's 2001 paper is revealing. It shows the crime rate falling dramatically in the early 1990s. But this small view gives us a selective picture. Right before this decline came a spike in crime. And if you go further back, you see a series of spikes and declines. And each time, the bigger a spike, the bigger the decline that follows, as crime reverts to the mean.

Kelling acknowledges that broken windows may not have had a dramatic effect on crime. But he thinks it still has value.

"Even if broken windows did not have a substantial impact on crime, order is an end in itself in a cosmopolitan, diverse world," he says. "Strangers have to feel comfortable moving through communities for those communities to thrive. Order is an end in itself, and it doesn't need the justification of serious crime."

Order might be an end in itself, but it's worth noting that this was not the premise on which the broken windows theory was sold. It was advertised as an innovative way to control violent crime, not just a way to get panhandlers and prostitutes off the streets.

'Broken Windows' Morphs Into 'Stop And Frisk'

Harcourt says there was another big problem with broken windows.

"We immediately saw a sharp increase in complaints of police misconduct. Starting in 1993, what you're going to see is a tremendous amount of disorder that erupts as a result of broken windows policing, with complaints skyrocketing, with settlements of police misconduct cases skyrocketing, and of course with incidents, brutal incidents, all of a sudden happening at a faster and faster clip."

The problem intensified with a new practice that grew out of broken windows. It was called "stop and frisk," and was embraced in New York City after Mayor Michael Bloomberg won election in 2001.

If broken windows meant arresting people for misdemeanors in hopes of preventing more serious crimes, "stop and frisk" said, why even wait for the misdemeanor? Why not go ahead and stop, question and search anyone who looked suspicious?

There were high-profile cases where misdemeanor arrests or stopping and questioning did lead to information that helped solve much more serious crimes, even homicides. But there were many more cases where police stops turned up nothing. In 2008, police made nearly 250,000 stops in New York for what they called furtive movements. Only one-fifteenth of 1 percent of those turned up a gun.

Even more problematic, in order to be able to go after disorder, you have to be able to define it. Is it a trash bag covering a broken window? Teenagers on a street corner playing music too loudly?

In Chicago, the researchers Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush analyzed what makes people perceive social disorder . They found that if two neighborhoods had exactly the same amount of graffiti and litter and loitering, people saw more disorder, more broken windows, in neighborhoods with more African-Americans.

George Kelling is not an advocate of stop and frisk. In fact, all the way back in 1982, he foresaw the possibility that giving police wide discretion could lead to abuse. In his article, he and James Q. Wilson write: "How do we ensure ... that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry? We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question."

In August of 2013, a federal district court found that New York City's stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional because of the way it singled out young black and Hispanic men. Later that year, New York elected its first liberal mayor in 20 years. Bill DeBlasio celebrated the end of stop and frisk. But he did not do away with broken windows. In fact, he re-appointed Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner, Bill Bratton.

And just seven months after taking over again as the head of the New York Police Department, Bratton's broken windows policy came under fresh scrutiny. The reason: the death of Eric Garner.

In July 2014, a bystander caught on cellphone video the deadly clash between New York City police officers and Garner, an African-American. After a verbal confrontation, officers tackled Garner, while restraining him with a chokehold, a practice that is banned in New York City.

Garner died not long after he was brought down to the ground. His death sparked massive protests, and his name is now synonymous with the distrust between police and African-American communities.

For George Kelling, this was not the end that he had hoped for. As a researcher, he's one of the few whose ideas have left the academy and spread like wildfire.

But once politicians and the media fell in love with his idea, they took it to places that he never intended and could not control.

"When, during the 1990s, I would occasionally read in a newspaper something like a new chief comes in and says, 'I'm going to implement broken windows tomorrow,' I would listen to that with dismay because [it's] a highly discretionary activity by police that needs extensive training, formal guidelines, constant monitoring and oversight. So do I worry about the implementation about broken windows? A whole lot ... because it can be done very badly."

In fact, Kelling says, it might be time to move away from the idea.

"It's to the point now where I wonder if we should back away from the metaphor of broken windows. We didn't know how powerful it was going to be. It simplified, it was easy to communicate, a lot of people got it as a result of the metaphor. It was attractive for a long time. But as you know, metaphors can wear out and become stale."

These days, the consensus among social scientists is that broken windows likely did have modest effects on crime. But few believe it caused the 60 or 70 percent decline in violent crime for which it was once credited.

And yet despite all the evidence, the idea continues to be popular.

Bernard Harcourt says there is a reason for that:

"It's a simple story that people can latch onto and that is a lot more pleasant to live with than the complexities of life. The fact is that crime dropped in America dramatically from the 1990s, and that there aren't really good, clean nationwide explanations for it."

The story of broken windows is a story of our fascination with easy fixes and seductive theories. Once an idea like that takes hold, it's nearly impossible to get the genie back in the bottle.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain , and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing

Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing

Bernard E. Harcourt , Columbia Law School Follow

Publication Date


This is the first book to challenge the “broken-windows” theory of crime, which argues that permitting minor misdemeanors, such as loitering and vagrancy, to go unpunished only encourages more serious crime. The theory has revolutionized policing in the United States and abroad, with its emphasis on policies that crack down on disorderly conduct and aggressively enforce misdemeanor laws.

The problem, argues Bernard Harcourt, is that although the broken-windows theory has been around for nearly thirty years, it has never been empirically verified. Indeed, existing data suggest that it is false. Conceptually, it rests on unexamined categories of “law abiders” and “disorderly people” and of “order” and “disorder,” which have no intrinsic reality, independent of the techniques of punishment that we implement in our society.

How did the new order-maintenance approach to criminal justice – a theory without solid empirical support, a theory that is conceptually flawed and results in aggressive detentions of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens – come to be one of the leading criminal justice theories embraced by progressive reformers, policymakers, and academics throughout the world? This book explores the reasons why. It also presents a new, more thoughtful vision of criminal justice.


Criminal Law | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Law | Legal Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, MA

“The main contributions of this volume include its incisive analysis of the uses and abuses of the concepts of incivilities and disorder, its placement of the order-maintenance rhetoric within the broader economic and political discussions of the New Progressives, and its close attention to the legal and societal impacts of the rise to fame of this theoretical perspective. Harcourt’s book represents a sincere, thoughtful, and multidisciplinary effort to demythologize the incivilities thesis… The volume is appropriate for graduate students in criminal justice, criminology, political science, and sociology. I have used it in a communities and crime graduate course with good results.” — Ralph B. Taylor , American Journal of Sociology

“Legal theorist Bernard Harcourt has written an important, engaging, and provocative work on criminal justice. He criticizes the idea, associated with James Q. Wilson, William Bratton, and Rudolph Giuliani, that determined efforts to punish petty crimes (breaking windows, loitering, squeegeeing windshields) will reduce the rate of serious crimes.” — Joshua Cohen , The Boston Review

“A 1982 article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling introduced the concept of a ‘broken windows’ approach to combating crime: i.e., tolerating litterers, loiterers, and disorderly minor offenders promotes an environment fostering more serious crime. Harcourt exhaustively analyzes the claim that this approach to policing urban neighborhoods merits a significant measure of credit for the decline in crime rates and the improvement in the quality of urban life. He finds an absence of convincing evidence to support claims on its behalf, and explores some reasons for the credit given to it. Many other factors are identified that may more plausibly explain the changes noted. Furthermore, Harcourt exposes some of the harmful consequences of the policies emanating out of the ‘broken windows’ approach for especially vulnerable constituencies.” — D.O. Friedrichs , Choice

“[In] his new book, Illusion of Order, Bernard Harcourt argues that the ‘broken windows’ theory underlying New York’s policing strategy doesn’t deserve much praise… He suggests that no studies establish a link between neighborhood disorder and crime victimization… Offering a critique grounded equally in public policy and political theory, the book veers widely, from the writings of Michel Foucault and John Stuart Mill to a highly technical analysis of previous statistical studies. [Harcourt’s] arguments offer a measured counterbalance to the gung-ho advocates of ‘broken windows’ policing and a welcome warning about the limits of simplistic social policy.” — Seth Stern , The Christian Science Monitor

“Harcourt presents a ‘wake-up’ call to all those who blindly accept the ‘broken windows’ approach to policing. Highly recommended for all criminology and social science collections.” — Tim Delaney , Library Journal

“This is an excellent, timely, and thought-provoking book, absolutely critical to the continuing debate on the ‘broken windows’ theory. Harcourt’s book will be a welcome intervention in this ongoing public debate. As an academic matter, Harcourt takes on the social norms school, and effectively exposes its absence of empirical support. This, too, is a tremendously important contribution to the literature. Like ‘broken windows’ in policing, ‘social norms’ theory has been accepted all too uncritically in academia, and the questions Harcourt raises are the right ones.” — David Cole , Georgetown University Law Center

“‘Broken windows,’ ‘order-maintenance,’ ‘quality-of-life policing’: these ideas are fast becoming the conventional wisdom of contemporary crime control. In this, the first book-length critique of these policies and the ideas that underpin them, Bernard Harcourt goes straight to the heart of the matter. Harcourt asks, ‘Do these policies work?’ and ‘How do we know?’ and he addresses these questions with due attention to empirical evidence and methodological detail. But he also poses a more profound question. ‘How do these ways of policing disorder shape our citizens, our civic culture, and our social relations?’ His book is a timely reminder that in policing the ‘disorderliness’ of others, we also define the civic order in which we, ourselves, must live.” — David Garland , New York University

“This book makes a valuable contribution for taking on the sacred cow of the ‘broken windows’ theory. Harcourt makes a convincing case that the New York miracle is not a confirmation of the ‘broken windows’ hypothesis, but reflects the substantial increase in the number of police in New York and the number of arrests, plus the effect of the declining crack cocaine trade. He argues that New York City’s quality-of-life initiative has probably contributed to the decline in crime not from a reduction in litter, fixing broken windows, or beautifying neighborhoods, but rather through the enhanced power of surveillance offered by a policy of aggressive misdemeanor arrests. These mechanisms have little to do with fixing broken windows and much more to do with arresting window breakers.” — John Donohue III , Stanford University

“Bernard Harcourt’s scholarly examination of the broken windows theory and its influence on present day policing is an important contribution to the debate and merits reading by serious observers of American policing.” — Hubert Williams , President, Police Foundation

Recommended Citation

Harcourt, Bernard E., "Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing" (2001). Faculty Books . 114.

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The Other Side of “Broken Windows”

By Eric Klinenberg

Buildings stand near an empty lot in North Philadelphia.

In the nineteenth century, British researchers began studying the variation in crime rates between and within cities. Some of these studies offered relatively simple accounts of the variance, in which concentrated poverty led to higher crime. Others went further, asking what explained the disparities in crime rates among poor neighborhoods. Most of this work “offered theories,” the University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald wrote in a recent paper, “but did not attempt to provide guidance on how to curb crime.” He compared this tradition, unfavorably, with the work of British health scholars, most notably John Snow, whose research on cholera “noted the importance of the spatial environment,” and who “suggested the separation of sewers and drinking water wells to prevent water-borne diseases.”

Of course, social scientists have long influenced crime policies. Consider the “broken windows” theory, which the Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson and the Rutgers criminologist George Kelling introduced, in a piece in The Atlantic , in 1982. According to Wilson and Kelling, criminals perceive broken windows and other forms of disorder as signs of weak social control; in turn, they assume that crimes committed there are unlikely to be checked. “Though it is not inevitable,” Wilson and Kelling argue, “it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped.”

“Broken Windows” is one of the most cited articles in the history of criminology; it’s sometimes called the Bible of policing. Since the nineteen-eighties, cities throughout the world have used Wilson and Kelling’s ideas as motivation for “zero tolerance” policing, wherein officers monitor petty crimes, such as graffiti, loitering, public intoxication, and even panhandling, and courts severely punish those convicted of committing them. “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things,” the former Los Angeles and New York City police chief William J. Bratton has said. (Bratton has also applied the theory in overseas consulting work.) In practice, this meant stopping, frisking, and arresting more people, particularly those who live in high-crime areas. It also meant a spike in reports that police were unfairly targeting minorities, particularly black men.

The broken-windows theory always worked better as an idea than as a description of the real world. The problems with the theory, which include the fact that perceptions of disorder generally have more to do with the racial composition of a neighborhood than with the number of broken windows or amount of graffiti in the area, are numerous and well documented. But more interesting than the theory’s flaws is the way that it was framed and interpreted. Consider the authors’ famous evocation of how disorder begins:

A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

Things get worse from there. But what’s curious is how the first two steps of this cycle—“A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up”—have disappeared in the public imagination. The third step—“a window is smashed”—inspired the article’s catchy title and took center stage. Debates about the theory ignored the two problems at the root of its story, jumping straight to the criminal behavior. We got “broken windows,” not “abandoned property,” and a very different policy response ensued.

But what if the authors—and the policymakers who heeded them—had taken another tack? What if vacant property had received the attention that, for thirty years, was instead showered on petty criminals?

A few years ago, John MacDonald, the Penn criminologist, and Charles Branas, the chair of epidemiology at Columbia University, began one of the most exciting research experiments in social science. Branas is a leading scholar of gun violence, having become interested in the subject while working as a paramedic. He met MacDonald in the aughts, when they were both working at the University of Pennsylvania, in a seminar on gun violence at the medical school’s trauma center. Both were frustrated by the science that linked crime to neighborhood disorder. “A lot of it, from ‘broken windows’ on, was just descriptive,” Branas told me. “You didn’t know exactly what counted as disorder. And it wasn’t actionable. Outside of policing, which was obviously complicated, there wasn’t much you could do about it.”

The two began meeting on campus. While they were brainstorming, Branas was invited to discuss his research at a conference in Philadelphia. During his presentation, he briefly mentioned his interest in running an experiment on the physical factors related to gun violence. “When I finished, someone from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society approached me,” Branas recalled. That person was convinced that vacant properties—Philadelphia had tens of thousands of empty lots—were driving up violent crime in poor neighborhoods. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, or P.H.S., had incredible data, and offered to help.

Branas and MacDonald were excited about the idea. There was, after all, an established literature on the relationship between abandoned properties and crime. In 1993, the criminologist William Spelman published a paper showing that, in Austin, “crime rates on blocks with open abandoned buildings were twice as high as rates on matched blocks without open buildings.” In 2005, the sociologist Lance Hannon showed that, in New York City’s high-poverty areas, the number of abandoned houses in a given census tract correlated with homicide levels. But Branas and MacDonald wanted to draw from an even deeper study, which required collecting an enormous amount of data and designing an experiment. They invited more scientists to join them: a health economist, a professor from Penn’s Department of Emergency Medicine, and a medical anthropologist.

One of the team’s first research projects involved two natural experiments in Philadelphia. In one, they examined violent crime around 2,356 abandoned buildings that had been in violation of Philadelphia’s anti-blight ordinance. A set of six hundred and seventy-six buildings had been remediated by the owners, which meant they had been “treated” with replacement doors and windows; the rest had not. Every month, for a three-year period between 2010 and 2013, the researchers compared violent-crime levels around the treated buildings with violent-crime levels around a randomly selected, geographically matched group of buildings that remained in disrepair.

The second experiment compared violent crime around vacant lots. According to the team’s research, there were 49,690 such lots in Philadelphia. P.H.S. had remediated at least 4,436 of them, which meant it had cleared trash and debris, graded the land, planted grass and trees to create a parklike setting, and installed low fences with walk-in openings to facilitate recreational use and deter illegal dumping. Again, Branas and his colleagues compared the treated sites with a set of randomly selected, geographically matched properties. In this study, they measured crime annually, over a full decade, from 1999 to 2008.

On a warm and windy day in September, I visited Philadelphia to observe the sites that P.H.S. had remediated. Keith Green, a P.H.S. employee with a salt-and-pepper beard, picked me up in his blue Ford pickup truck, and told me that we’d begin by driving to West Philadelphia, where P.H.S. maintains 2.3 million square feet of vacant land. Green, who grew up in a part of Philadelphia that’s so gray it’s known as “the concrete city,” started working at P.H.S. twenty-one years ago, first as an intern and then on community-garden projects. “I never thought I’d be doing this for so long,” he told me. “But I found my niche when we started fixing up abandoned property.”

As we drove, Green told me about one of his first jobs. “The city asked us to clean up a two-block area in North Philadelphia where there was a flea infestation. We got there, and it was like the entire area had turned into a jungle. Weeds, tall grass, messed-up trees. People were using it as a dumping ground.” The team ended up treating a hundred and twenty-five empty lots. “It was a horrible job, but when we finished you could tell that the neighborhood was going to be different,” he said. “And people were so happy. I’d have kids running up to my truck, yelling, ‘Mr. Keith! Mr. Keith! Can you come back tomorrow?’ They treated me like I was Mister Softee.”

Green drove slowly up Fortieth Street, on the west side of the city. “You’re gonna want to keep your eyes open,” he said. The area looked a lot like Englewood and North Lawndale, neighborhoods I’d studied in Chicago, where row houses and apartment buildings, some empty, some well-kept, sat adjacent to large, open lots that were thick with weeds, debris, and six-foot-high grass. “See that?” He pulled over at a corner lot with a low-lying wooden fence, two benches, trimmed trees, and a neatly cut lawn. “That’s one of our treated sites. You can tell because it’s so well maintained.”

We got out and walked through the pocket park to a vacant house and large lot a few steps away. There, the grass had grown both high and wide, so that it came through the sidewalk and out to the curb. “Now this—this is a disaster,” Green said. “It’s probably got an owner who wouldn’t let us work here, or someone we couldn’t track down. If you live here, you’ve got to deal with all the problems this attracts into the neighborhood: pests, insects, garbage, crime. And you know it’s gonna make it hard for new development to work here. People see that and they want to run.”

We crossed the narrow street to look at another property. Loretta, a woman in her late twenties, out for some exercise, was walking briskly toward us. I paused and asked if she lived there. “No,” she replied. “But I walk around this neighborhood all the time.”

“Have you noticed all the little parks with small fences?” I asked.

“Not really.” She looked around, took them in. “They’re nice, though.”

“What about the abandoned lots with all the weeds and garbage?”

“Um, yeah,” Loretta answered, cracking a little smile. “Why do you think I’m walking on the other side of the street?” She paused for a beat, then looked over at the lot. “Those places are scary. You don’t know what’s going on in that mess, who’s around. There’s a lot of places like that around here, and I just try to keep away.”

Green and I headed up the road again before turning onto Westminster Street. He pointed to a large remediated lot that residents had converted into a community park, with picnic tables and a small garden. “A guy who owns a store a few blocks away helped fix up this block,” Green explained. “He just wanted the neighborhood to look nice, to get more people out on the sidewalks and gardens. We see a lot of that. If we maintain things, residents go a little further, and put in what they like.”

We crossed over to a set of three row houses that had pocket parks on either side. As we approached, a man with gray hair, sunglasses, and a wooden cane was sitting on a picnic table and talking on a flip phone. He stood up, nodded, and introduced himself as Micky. Green asked if the park made the neighborhood better. “Oh, you know it does,” he replied. He pointed to the front porch of the row house next door, where a woman named Joyce, in sandals and a white T-shirt, was relaxing on a rocking chair. “Ask her. She knows.”

Joyce was nodding. “I’ve been staying here ten, twelve years now. Those lots were bad when I first got here. Drugs and all that. Kids up to no good. People would let their dogs run all around them, too—oh, did it smell!” She grimaced and shivered a little. “But they fixed it up pretty soon after I got here. Put them tables in—big umbrellas, too. Kids started coming around. We got the garden going. Before, everybody would avoid this block. It was ugly, and dangerous, ’cause you didn’t know who was gonna jump out of those bushes. Now it’s a lot better.”

Green and his colleagues at P.H.S. suspected that fixing up the empty lots and buildings was improving Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods, but they weren’t certain. Branas and MacDonald had a more specific hypothesis: that remediation would reduce violent crime nearby. “It’s not simply that they are signs of disorder,” Branas told me. “It’s that the places themselves create opportunities for gun violence; they take what might just be a poor neighborhood and make it poor and dangerous.”

The reasons are straightforward. Abandoned houses are good places for people involved in crime to hide when on the run. They’re also good places to store firearms. Untended lots are notoriously useful for drug dealing—in part because most law-abiding residents avoid them, and in part because dealers can hide their products in the weeds and tall grass if the police drive by. For communities, and for the police, they are hard places to monitor and control.

Compelling theories, as critics of broken-windows policing know all too well, are often betrayed by evidence. That’s why Branas was so surprised by the findings from their first study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which showed a thirty-nine-per-cent reduction in gun violence in and around remediated abandoned buildings and a smaller—but still meaningful—five-per-cent reduction in gun violence in and around remediated lots. These are extraordinary numbers, at a level of impact one rarely sees in a social-science experiment.

Equally powerful, Branas said, was that there was no evidence that the violence had simply shifted to nearby places. The declines were real. And they lasted from one to nearly four years, making the benefit far more sustainable than those of other crime-reduction programs. “Honestly, it was a bigger effect than we’d expected to find,” he said.

For Branas, the results pointed toward a new approach to crime prevention. Early in his career, he worked on what, in hindsight, he views as a failed experiment—conventional anti-violence research that focussed on the people most likely to commit crimes. “When I started at Penn, we had been working hard to reduce gun crime in Philadelphia. We had the interpreters, the social workers, the community leaders,” he said. “Some of them were amazing, and we had some successes. But they were always short-lived. . . . In the end, it wound up helping only, I don’t know, about fifty kids, just the ones who were there at the time.”

To this day, most policies that aim to reduce crime focus on punishing people rather than improving places. The President has called for a national “stop and frisk” police program; the Attorney General wants more severe sentencing; advocates of “law and order” are resurgent. We invest little in housing and neighborhood amenities like libraries, senior centers, and community gardens, which draw people into the public realm and put more eyes on the street. And we spend even less to address criminal “hot spots”—the empty lots and abandoned buildings that, according to Branas’s team, account for fifteen per cent of city space in America.

What the Philadelphia studies suggest is that place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based ones. “Tens of millions of vacant and abandoned properties exist in the United States,” Branas and his team wrote. Remediating those properties is simple, cheap, and easily reproducible. What’s more, the programs impose few demands on local residents, and they appear to pay for themselves. “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.00 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested,” the team wrote. It’s not only more dangerous to leave the properties untended—it’s more expensive.

Slowly, word seems to be spreading. After Branas began publishing his findings, cities throughout the U.S. and beyond began similar efforts. “In the last few years we’ve had people here from so many cities,” Keith Green told me. “Detroit, Chicago, Trenton, and Seoul. When the guy from Chicago was here, he kept saying, ‘This is incredible! This is incredible!’ ” By 2016, the team had raised millions of dollars in federal grants, and blight-remediation projects had been launched in New Orleans; Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; and Youngstown, Ohio. Each experiment included, at Branas’s insistence, trained frontline researchers and paid community residents.

These are not new ideas. In 1854, John Snow, the British health researcher, began studying a cholera outbreak on Broad Street, in the Soho section of London. At the time, most people, scientists included, believed that the cause of the epidemic was “miasmata,” or foul air. Snow was a skeptic. He mapped the cases and noticed that they clustered around a single water pump, which he persuaded the local council to disable. That action—which stopped the outbreak, founded the field of epidemiology, and spurred fundamental improvements to the public’s health—came from an attention to the environment, not to the individual. “We’re proud that we’ve been able to employ people in these neighborhoods,” Branas said about his work. “But the bigger, more sustainable effect will come from fixing places.”

This excerpt is drawn from “ Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life ,” which will be published this September, by Crown.

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