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  • Introduction

The theory in practice

broken windows theory

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broken windows theory , academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime .

Broken windows theory had an enormous impact on police policy throughout the 1990s and remained influential into the 21st century. Perhaps the most notable application of the theory was in New York City under the direction of Police Commissioner William Bratton. He and others were convinced that the aggressive order-maintenance practices of the New York City Police Department were responsible for the dramatic decrease in crime rates within the city during the 1990s. Bratton began translating the theory into practice as the chief of New York City’s transit police from 1990 to 1992. Squads of plainclothes officers were assigned to catch turnstile jumpers, and, as arrests for misdemeanours increased, subway crimes of all kinds decreased dramatically. In 1994, when he became New York City police commissioner, Bratton introduced his broken windows-based “quality of life initiative .” This initiative cracked down on panhandling, disorderly behaviour, public drinking , street prostitution , and unsolicited windshield washing or other such attempts to obtain cash from drivers stopped in traffic. When Bratton resigned in 1996, felonies were down almost 40 percent in New York, and the homicide rate had been halved.

Prior to the development and implementation of various incivility theories such as broken windows, law enforcement scholars and police tended to focus on serious crime; that is, the major concern was with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape , robbery , and murder . Wilson and Kelling took a different view. They saw serious crime as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur.

Their theory further posits that the prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who are convinced that the area is unsafe. This withdrawal from the community weakens social controls that previously kept criminals in check. Once this process begins, it feeds itself. Disorder causes crime, and crime causes further disorder and crime.

Scholars generally define two different types of disorder. The first is physical disorder, typified by vacant buildings, broken windows, abandoned vehicles, and vacant lots filled with trash. The second type is social disorder, which is typified by aggressive panhandlers, noisy neighbours, and groups of youths congregating on street corners. The line between crime and disorder is often blurred, with some experts considering such acts as prostitution and drug dealing as disorder while many others classify them as crimes. While different, these two types of disorder are both thought to increase fear among citizens.

The obvious advantage of this theory over many of its criminological predecessors is that it enables initiatives within the realm of criminal justice policy to effect change, rather than relying on social policy. Earlier social disorganization theories and economic theories offered solutions that were costly and would take a long time to prove effective. Broken windows theory is seen by many as a way to effect change quickly and with minimal expense by merely altering the police crime-control strategy. It is far simpler to attack disorder than it is to attack such ominous social ills as poverty and inadequate education.

Although popular in both academic and law-enforcement circles, broken windows theory is not without its critics. One line of criticism is that there is little empirical evidence that disorder, when left unchallenged, causes crime. To validate the theory in its entirety, it must be shown that disorder causes fear, that fear causes a breakdown of social controls (sometimes referred to as community cohesion), and that this breakdown of social controls in turn causes crime. Finally, crime must be shown to increase levels of disorder.

The strongest empirical support for the broken windows theory came from the work of political scientist Wesley Skogan, who found that certain types of social and physical disorder were related to certain kinds of serious crime. However, Skogan prudently recommended caution in the interpretation of his results as proof of the validity of the broken windows theory. Even this qualified support has been questioned by some researchers. In a reanalysis of Skogan’s data, political theorist Bernard Harcourt found that the link between neighbourhood disorder and purse snatching, assault, rape, and burglary vanished when poverty, neighbourhood stability, and race were statistically controlled. Only the link between disorder and robbery remained. Harcourt also criticized the broken windows theory for fostering “zero-tolerance” policies that are prejudicial against the disadvantaged segments of society.

In his attempt to link serious crime with disorder, criminal justice scholar Ralph Taylor found that no distinct pattern of relationships between crime and disorder emerged. Rather, some specific disorderly acts were linked to some specific crimes. He concluded that attention to disorder in general might be an error and that, while loosely connected, specific acts may not reflect a general state of disorder. He suggested that specific problems would require specific solutions. This seemed to provide more support for problem-oriented policing strategies than it did for the broken windows theory.

In short, the validity of the broken windows theory is not known. It is safe to conclude that the theory does not explain everything and that, even if the theory is valid, companion theories are necessary to fully explain crime. Alternatively, a more complex model is needed to consider many more cogent factors. Almost every study of the topic has, however, validated the link between disorder and fear. There is also strong support for the belief that fear increases a person’s desire to abandon disorderly communities and move to environments that are more hospitable. This option is available to the middle class, who can afford to move, but not to the poor, who have fewer choices. If the middle class moves out and the poor stay, the neighbourhood will inevitably become economically disadvantaged. This suggests that the next wave of theorization about neighbourhood dynamics and crime may take an economic bent.

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Broken Windows Theory

Last updated 2 Apr 2018

James Q. Wilson concluded that the extent to which a community regulates itself has a dramatic impact on crime and deviance. The "broken windows" referred to in the theory’s name is the idea that where there is one broken window left unreplaced there will be many.

A broken window is a physical symbol that the residents of a particular neighbourhood do not especially care about their environment and that low-level deviance is tolerated. The theory influenced policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic and, most famously, in New York in the 1990s.  

Their response was  zero tolerance  policing where the criminal justice system took low-level crime and anti-social behaviour much more seriously than they had in the past.  This included "three strikes and you're out" policies where people could get serious custodial sentences for repeated minor offences, such as unsolicited windscreen cleaning, prostitution, drunk and disorderly behaviour, etc. 

The idea was that low-level crime should not be tolerated and severe penalties needed to be meted out for anti-social behaviour and minor incivilities in order to deter more serious crime and ensure that  collective conscience  and  social solidarity  is maintained by clear  boundary maintenance.

Evaluating Broken Windows Theory

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Introduction to Broken Windows Theory

By Ayesh Perera, published Jan 22, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Zimbardo’s Study

In 1969, the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in which he arranged two automobiles in the same condition, with their hoods up and no license plates, to be parked in two different locations—one in Bronx, New York, and the other in Palo Alto, California.


Within minutes, the car in Bronx was attacked. The first vandals comprised a family, a mother and father with their young son, who removed the battery and radiator. Within the ensuing 24 hours, the vehicle was stripped of everything valuable.

Not long afterwards, the car’s upholstery was ripped, its windows were smashed, and soon children were playing upon it. Meanwhile, the car in Palo Alto would remain untouched for more than 7 days.

Finally, Zimbardo went and smashed the car using a sledgehammer. Soon, others joined in, and the car was destroyed. Most of those involved in the vandalism herein were well dressed and apparently decent individuals.

The study seemed to support the conclusion that communities with histories of theft and abandoned property are more likely to experience vandalism because apathy to the erosion of civility is likely to engender and encourage unacceptable behavior.

Wilson and Kelling - Broken Window Policy

Despite the abovementioned early experiments, the concept was first introduced as a theory by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in March 1982 in their article “Broken Windows” in The Atlantic Monthly .

Herein, they noted, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing” (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Broken Windows Theory

Source: Hinkle, J. C., & Weisburd, D. (2008). The irony of broken windows policing: A micro-place study of the relationship between disorder, focused police crackdowns and fear of crime. Journal of Criminal Justice, 36(6), 503-512.

The theory would be further developed by George Kelling and Catherine Coles in their 1996 book Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities .

The book discussed strategies to curb crimes in urban neighborhoods, and posited that addressing problems while they are small (e.g., immediately repairing broken windows and cleaning the sidewalks daily) could stop minor misconduct from escalating into major crimes (Kelling & Coles, 1997).

The theory soon gained enormous attention. While its advocates sought to enact it via various law enforcement initiatives, its detractors showed no reluctance in denouncing what they saw as its adverse aspects.

Examples of Broken Windows Policing

New york city.

Giulian Broken Window Policing

The 1990s saw the broken windows theory significantly shaping law enforcement policy. Having hired George Kelling as a consultant in 1985, New York City authorities soon embarked on an ambitious project to reduce crime (Fagan & Garth, 2000).

Led by Police Commissioner William Bratton, New York City adopted an aggressive order-maintenance approach, deploying squads of plain-clothes officers to make arrests for misdemeanors.

The ‘quality of life initiative’ of 1994, in particular, cracked down on disorderly conduct, panhandling, street prostitution, unsolicited windshield washing and public drinking. By 1996, when Bratton resigned, the rate of homicide had been halved and felonies had decreased by nearly 40%.

Lowell, Massachusetts

broken window theory in sociology

New York City’s success would soon inspire similar policing around the United States. For instance, researchers from Harvard and Suffolk tracked down 34 hotspots for crime in Lowell, Massachusetts, and local authorities reorganized half of these regions (Johnson, 2009; Ruhl, 2021).

They increased misdemeanor arrests, fixed streetlights, and cleaned up the trash. The other half of the crime hotspots remained unaltered. Calls to the police dropped by a notable 20% in the areas which had been cleaned up by the law enforcement.

Making regular arrests as well as significantly changing the landscape of the city seemed to have profoundly improved the safety of the environment.

Tokyo, Japan

The local government of Adachi Ward, Tokyo, which once had Tokyo’s highest crime rates, introduced the “Beautiful Windows Movement” in 2008 (Hino & Chronopoulos, 2021).

The intervention was twofold. The program, on one hand, drawing on the broken windows theory, promoted policing to prevent minor crimes and disorder. On the other hand, in partnership with citizen volunteers, the authorities launched a project to make Adachi Ward literally beautiful.

Following 11 years of implementation, the reduction in crime was undeniable. Felony had dropped from 122 in 2008 to 35 in 2019, burglary from 104 to 24, and bicycle theft from 93 to 45.

This Japanese case study seemed to further highlight the advantages associated with translating the broken widow theory into both aggressive policing and landscape altering.

Pros and Cons of Broken Windows Policing

About the author.

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology , Social and Personal Relationships , and Social Psychology .

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Ayesh, P. (2022, Jan 22). Introduction to broken windows theory . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/broken-windows-theory.html

Further Information

APA Style References

Fagan, J., & Davies, G. (2000). Street stops and broken windows: Terry, race, and disorder in New York City. Fordham Urb. LJ , 28, 457.

Harcourt, B. E. (2009). Illusion of order: The false promise of broken windows policing . Harvard University Press.

Harcourt, B. E., & Ludwig, J. (2006). Broken windows: New evidence from New York City and a five-city social experiment. U. Chi. L. Rev., 73 , 271.

Johnson, C. Y. (2009). Breakthrough on “broken windows.” Boston Globe.

Kelling, G. L., & Coles, C. M. (1997). Fixing broken windows: Restoring order and reducing crime in our communities . Simon and Schuster.

Ruhl, C. (2021, July 26). The broken windows theory . Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/broken-windows-theory.html

Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic monthly, 249 (3), 29-38.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska press.


About this Story

Salienko Evgenii/Shutterstock

Broken Windows Theory

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The broken windows theory states that visible signs of disorder and misbehavior in an environment encourage further disorder and misbehavior, leading to serious crimes. The principle was developed to explain the decay of neighborhoods, but it is often applied to work and educational environments.

What Is the Broken Windows Theory?

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The broken windows theory, defined in 1982 by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling, drawing on earlier research by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, argues that no matter how rich or poor a neighborhood, one broken window would soon lead to many more windows being broken: “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” Disorder increases levels of fear among citizens, which leads them to withdraw from the community and decrease participation in informal social control.

What do “broken windows” mean?

The broken windows are a metaphor for any visible sign of disorder in an environment that goes untended. This may include small crimes, acts of vandalism, drunken or disorderly conduct, etc. Being forced to confront minor problems can heavily influence how people feel about their environment, particularly their sense of safety.  

What is an example of the broken windows theory?

With the help of small civic organizations, lower-income Chicago residents have created over 800 community gardens and urban farms out of burnt buildings and vacant lots. Now, instead of having trouble finding fresh produce, these neighborhoods have become go-to food destinations. This example of the broken windows theory benefits the people by lowering temperatures in overheated cities, increasing socialization, reducing stress , and teaching children about nature.

Who created the broken windows theory?

George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson popularized the broken windows theory in an article published in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic . They asserted that vandalism and smaller crimes would normalize larger crimes (although this hypothesis has not been fully supported by subsequent research). They also remarked on how signs of disorder (e.g., a broken window) stirred up feelings of fear in residents and harmed the safety of the neighborhood as a whole.

Where were broken windows policies first implemented?

The broken windows theory was put forth at a time when crime rates were soaring, and it often spurred politicians to advocate policies for increasing policing of petty crimes—fare evasion, public drinking, or graffiti—as a way to prevent, and decrease, major crimes including violence. The theory was notably implemented and popularized by New York City mayor Rudolf Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton. In research reported in 2000, Kelling claimed that broken-windows policing had prevented over 60,000 violent crimes between 1989 and 1998 in New York City, though critics of the theory disagreed.

Does Broken Windows Policies Work?


Although the “Broken Windows” article is one of the most cited in the history of criminology , Kelling contends that it has often been misapplied. The implementation soon escalated to “zero tolerance” policing policies, especially in minority communities. It also led to controversial practices such as “stop and frisk” and an increase in police misconduct complaints.

Most important, research indicates that criminal activity was declining on its own, for a number of demographic and socio-economic reasons, and so credit for the shift could not be firmly attributed to broken-windows policing policies. Experts point out that there is “no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship,” contends Columbia law professor Bernard E. Harcourt. The causes of misbehavior are varied and complex.

Is the broken windows model effective?

The effectiveness of this approach depends on how it is implemented. In 2016, Dr. Charles Branas led an initiative to repair abandoned properties and transform vacant lots into community parks in high-crime neighborhoods in Philadelphia, which subsequently saw a 39% reduction in gun violence. By building “palaces for the people” with these safe and sustainable solutions, neighborhoods can be lifted up, and crime can be reduced.  

Can repairing “broken windows” make the economy grow?

When a neighborhood, even a poor one, is well-tended and welcoming, its residents have a greater sense of safety. Building and maintaining social infrastructure—such as public libraries, parks and other green spaces, and active retail corridors—can be a more sustainable option and improve the daily lives of the people who live there.

Does a broken windows approach lead to more aggressive policing?

According to the broken windows theory, disorder (symbolized by a broken window) leads to fear and the potential for increased and more severe crime. Unfortunately, this concept has been misapplied, leading to aggressive and zero-tolerance policing. These policing strategies tend to focus on an increased police presence in troubled communities (especially those with minorities and lower-income residents) and stricter punishments for minor infractions (e.g., marijuana use).  

What is meant by zero tolerance?

Zero-tolerance policing metes out predetermined consequences regardless of the severity or context of a crime. Zero-tolerance policies can be harmful in an academic setting, as vulnerable youth (particularly those from minority ethnic/racial backgrounds) find themselves trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline for committing minor infractions. 

What type of policing reduces crime?

Aggressive policing practices can sour relationships between police and the community. However, problem-oriented policing—which identifies the specific problems or “broken windows” in a neighborhood and then comes up with proactive responses—can help reduce crime. This evidence-based policing strategy  has been shown to be effective. 

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Broken Windows Theory in Policing

Amelia Emery has taught high school English Language Arts for 9 years and University level writing courses for 3 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education and English and a Master of Arts in Literature from Abilene Christian University. She is certifies to teach English Language Arts and Reading and English as a Second Language in Texas for grades 6-12 .

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Lesson Summary

In 1982, James Q Wilson and George Kelling outlined broken windows theory , which posits that when a neighborhood allows physical manifestations of disorder, like broken windows and graffiti, to go unrepaired, it will then begin to experience social disorder, higher crime rates, and decreased safety. On the other hand, areas where physical spaces are clean, repaired and orderly, tend to have a higher level of social controls, and less crime. Residents who live in orderly neighborhoods ensure collective efficacy by holding one another accountable to social and behavioral norms.

New York City implemented broken windows policing in the mid-1990s, and as a result, they reported a significant decline in major crimes. Their reported successes may not take into account other factors like electronic criminal databases, increased police funding and staffing, and overall trends in drug use and related crimes. Broken windows theory and order-maintaining policing may produce positive results when applied judiciously. However, when applied with broad strokes, it may end up targeting vulnerable populations, leading to incidents of police brutality, gentrification , and tension between police and residents.

What is an example of broken windows theory?

An example of broken windows theory can be seen in public restrooms. The inside of restroom stalls is a frequent target of graffiti and vandalism. When the managers of the restroom take action to remove graffiti, and repair damage within a day of it occurring, the social norm of not causing damage is maintained. On the other hand, if the management does not immediately clean or repair the damage, other individuals add further graffiti or damage, because the property is not cared for. The public restroom then becomes part of a system of physical disorder and the behavior of people interacting with the space will also become more disorderly.

What is the broken windows theory of policing?

The broken windows theory of policing, also called order-maintaining policing, focuses on aggressively pursuing misdemeanor crimes, in an effort to reduce the number of major crimes. Police forces focus on areas with higher crime rates, and issue tickets and arrest individuals for low-level infractions. This application of broken windows theory proposes that by maintaining social order and behavior at a low level, criminality and disorder at higher levels will not occur.

Say that you're on vacation with your family and are driving in an area that you are unfamiliar with. When you look around, you see that windows on the buildings have been broken and there's graffiti on the walls and abandoned cars on the streets. The first thing that goes through your mind is that this must be an unsafe neighborhood and that you should probably leave. Without knowing the area, you concluded that, based on its general appearance alone, it was unsafe. The assessment that you made was due to what is considered the broken windows theory .

The broken windows theory stems from an article written in 1982 by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Their theory states that signs of disorder will lead to more disorder. A building with a broken window that has been left unrepaired will give the appearance that no one cares and no one is in charge. This will lead to vandals breaking the rest of the windows and adding graffiti, because in their minds nobody cares.

broken window theory in sociology

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Table of Contents

What is the broken window theory, broken windows policing: how it works, broken window theory: examples and case studies, broken window effect, broken windows policing: criticisms.

In a well-maintained, clean neighborhood, a broken window or patch of graffiti stands out. If that window or graffiti is quickly repaired or removed, the neighborhood maintains its appearance of order and care. On the other hand, if the damage is not repaired, more graffiti, vandalism, and damage may result due to the residents' seeming apathy. This concept about how well a neighborhood or area is cared for, based on the appearance of the area is the broken windows theory .

In the context of sociology, the broken windows theory definition addresses concepts of care, versus apathy for the physical aspects of the neighborhood. Repairing the damage and upholding social norms lead new members of the community to uphold the standard.

The definition of broken windows policing involves aggressively pursuing misdemeanors that disrupt social norms, such as public intoxication, vandalism, loitering, and other minor infractions. Order-maintaining policing rests on the idea that when annoyance misdemeanors are policed, the number of serious crimes in an area will decrease.

Origins and History

In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, American criminologists, published "Broken Windows" explaining that uncontrolled minor disorder in a neighborhood, like broken windows, vandalism, loitering, littering, and public intoxication, leads to greater disorder and, eventually, serious criminal activity. The theory is that visible damage and other small infractions, lead people to believe that criminal activity will not be reported. Therefore, individuals who are likely to commit crimes may feel more comfortable in these areas.

In order to prevent this decline, neighborhood citizens or municipalities must quickly repair vandalism, and enforce acceptable social norms of behavior. The residents of the neighborhood are more likely to enforce acceptable behaviors, as long as they feel that they are physically safe. If physical and behavioral disorder continues unchecked, residents might involve police, or they may move out of the area leaving a lower standard of behavior as the social norm.

Broken windows theory was adapted into a policing strategy, sometimes called "order-maintaining policing" or "broken windows policing." The theory holds appeal for major cities hoping to cut down on major crime rates. If the city can stop small crimes from occurring, the theory states, then criminals will be discouraged from committing large crimes. Therefore, it should follow that the crime rate will decrease.

In theory, broken windows policing works as a deterrent to crime. Small, disorderly misdemeanors are aggressively addressed and policed. When crimes like vandalism and loitering are addressed, major crimes are less likely to occur in that area because the residents know that the police will assertively maintain order. Social control and fear become two of the main components of broken windows policing.

Social Control

Broken windows policing relies heavily on social control. Residents apply pressure on one another to maintain proper behavior and property management in the community. However, once city management and police become involved, the police force becomes responsible for enforcing social behavioral controls.

In some case studies, there seems to be a clear positive result of improved social order, when broken windows policing is implemented. For example, when order-maintaining policing was implemented in New York City in the mid-1990s, there was a corresponding decrease in the overall crime rate.

However, the seemingly obvious relationship between broken windows policing, and improved social controls, does not take other factors into account. To some extent, individual citizens work together to create collective efficacy in their communities. They maintain social control in their own neighborhoods. This variable is not taken into account in many evaluations of broken window policing.

Another issue to evaluate is how broken windows theory divides people into binary groups: criminals and non-criminals; honest people and disorderly people. Although social norms may vary between groups, broken windows theory doesn't allow for these differences. It offers only order and disorder as the categories of social behavior and control.

The implication of these binary differences is that if there is disorder in a neighborhood, no one in the area cares about order. The theory assumes that orderly people will either help enforce it, or move away. These are not always possibilities for individuals and families living in neighborhoods with varying levels of social control.

Citizens who desire social order experience fear as physical disorder in the area increases. In disordered neighborhoods, residents may fear that the social order is beyond repair, and feel helpless to act to restore order. They may move away, or lock themselves inside their own homes. In either case, the lack of collective efficacy in the area, leads to increased disorder and higher crime.

One study explored the relationships among fear, social disorder, and collective efficacy in public schools. Schools with visible, physical disorder and disrepair, created a higher feeling of fear for personal safety among the students. Fearful students were more likely to interpret other students' acts as hostile and threatening. That fear may be justified as students in schools with physically disordered environments were more likely to behave aggressively than students in schools with collective efficacy and stronger social controls.

In the 1990s, broken windows policing became a popular tactic for reorganizing police departments. New York City made headlines when leaders applied this method, and the crime rate dropped. In the wake of their success, Albuquerque, NM, and Lowell, Massachusetts targeted crime in their communities with this method.

New York City, New York

In the early 1990s, NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, created a new standard of maintenance and policing called the "quality of life initiative." This plan incorporated broken windows theory, focusing on physically repairing damage in the city, and applying a zero-tolerance policy on misdemeanor crimes.

A significant element in broken windows policing, especially in New York, was the aggressive pursuit of misdemeanor arrests. Police pursued social order by arresting and jailing people for infractions that were previously issued as desk tickets: loitering, smoking marijuana in public, spraying graffiti, dancing in unlicensed clubs, selling untaxed cigarettes, and jumping turnstiles.

In the first two years, misdemeanor arrests in NYC more than doubled, while major crime rates decreased substantially, as much as 50% in some categories.

Giuliani and Bratton were quick to credit broken windows policing, but they didn't publicly take into account other contributing factors. During the 1990s, major crime rates dropped across the country in large cities, even in those that did not change their policing techniques. Easy access to computerized data and national databases, made the apprehension of criminals faster. Electronic crime data also allows police forces to identify predictive trends in criminal activity.

They identified 34 high crime areas in Lowell, then applied the concepts of broken windows theory to half of these sites, cleaning up, repairing street lights, removing graffiti, and generally improving those neighborhoods. They also provided more social support for people in need and adopted the zero-tolerance approach to misdemeanor offenses. No changes were made in the other half of the locations, to create a control group for the study.

The outcome revealed that cleaning up physical damage, and maintaining the public spaces, was significantly more effective than increasing the number of misdemeanor arrests. Overall, the neighborhoods that experienced the application of broken windows theory experienced a 20% decrease in overall crime.

The negative broken window effects on communities may include an increase in minor and major crimes, creation of unsafe learning environments, and decreasing property values. By the same token, when a community applies broken windows theory, the opposite trends appear: major crime rates decrease, schools become more successful, and property values increase.

Broken window theory has applications in educational settings as well. An examination of 33 public middle schools found that the most effective application of the theory is seen in preventing physical disorder, like vandalism and graffiti. An orderly school building creates a greater feeling of safety for the students and faculty. Students in schools with physical disorder, felt more fear and aggression than those in orderly spaces.

Teachers may manage their classrooms with broken windows theory, as well. Those who consistently address and correct smaller misbehaviors and insist on compliance with social and behavioral norms have students who report feeling safe and successful.

Property Values

When properties in a neighborhood are cared for and crime rates are low, the property values are likely to increase. Physical and social order are more likely to be maintained leading to safer neighborhoods with residents who are more invested in preserving that social order.

One study found that neighborhoods with a combination of low and high-income families had more collective efficacy and physical order, leading to higher property values. This leads to a potential problem in these neighborhoods -- gentrification . As property values increase, especially in urban centers, investors see the appeal of purchasing and improving properties attracting families with higher incomes.

Gentrification becomes problematic, when low-income housing is eliminated in these neighborhoods, leaving lower-earning families without affordable housing, or transportation that is convenient to their employment.

Although there are benefits in targeted applications of broken windows policing, widespread application of the theory does have its faults.

Not all crimes are related to physical disorder in neighborhoods, like pickpocketing and purse snatching. Even burglary and assaults are not necessarily directly related to physical disorder, when other demographics in a neighborhood like income and race are stable.

Other potential problems with broken windows policing include racial profiling, expenses incurred for frequent misdemeanor arrests, incidences of police brutality, and the reinforcement of social class structures.

Implementation of broken window policing, and its emphasis on misdemeanor arrests, leads to a disproportionate number of minority people being arrested. In 1995, approximately half of all the individuals arrested in urban areas for vagrancy or suspicious intent were Black, although only about 13% of the population was Black.

Statistical evidence has proven that people of color are more likely to be stopped and arrested by police than white people. While the idea of broken windows policing is to target physical areas of crime, the reality tends to play out that minority neighborhoods, and low-income neighborhoods are the most likely focuses of police attention.

This is problematic, because the concept behind broken windows theory is to focus on maintaining and protecting physical places, while in application it ends up being a focus on people and their behaviors.

Broken windows policing also tends to create an "us versus them" mentality between social classes of people. Police maintain order through misdemeanor arrests. These arrests and prosecutions are costly. Missing work, paying bail, and paying fines can incur thousands of dollars. Citizens who experience poverty and homelessness may become victims of broken windows policing, as they are seen as undesirable people to have in a neighborhood.

Though the intentions of broken windows theory and policing are to create safety and security, the policies begin to create binary differences that mark people as acceptable or unacceptable. It is an unfortunate reality that people of color, and those in lower socioeconomic brackets, more often fall into the unacceptable category. The focus of broken windows policing then shifts from maintaining physical order and security, to seeing the presence of unacceptable people as disorderly.

Logic Behind the Theory

The logic behind this theory is simple. In every neighborhood, there are informal social controls. Usually people police their own neighborhoods until they feel it is unsafe to do so. When the neighborhood becomes unsafe in their opinion, they either move away if they can or remain inside of their houses to stay safe. This reduces the effectiveness of the informal social control, which can lead to increased criminal activity.

The one flaw with this logic, as stated by Wilson and Kelling, is that window breaking may not actually occur on a large scale. This is due to the fact that some residents in some communities are not scared off as easily and attempt to keep whatever social control they can. So when the windows begin to get broken, they call the city, the police, and the landlords to get the damage repaired. These residents are determined to keep their neighborhood looking like it has in the years past.


The broken windows theory has been implemented in several major cities across the United States. For example, in 1994, Rudy Giuliani was elected as the mayor of New York. He quickly implanted a broken windows theory strategy and had the police crackdown on graffiti and other smaller quality of life crimes. He had broken windows repaired and graffiti removed nightly. As a direct result, the overall crime rate dropped sharply.

However, to date this theory has remained unproven. The idea of smaller crimes leading to larger crimes has not been fully accepted by social scientists. In a 2004 report published by the National Academy of Sciences titled 'Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence,' the author wrote that the research did not support that enforcement against offenders committing minor offenses lead to the reduction of serious crime. The report concluded that the success experienced in New York was due in part to an overall decline in crime throughout the country.

The broken windows theory stems from an article written in 1982 by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The theory maintains that disorder in neighborhoods will lead people to be disorderly. One simple broken window left unrepaired will lead to vandals breaking the other windows and the appearance of an uncared for and abandoned property. This disorder will lead to social decline, causing others to be disorderly and inviting the criminal element. To date, this theory has remained unproven. Successes had by some cities that have implemented the broken windows theory been explained away by naturally occurring trends in crime.

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“Broken Windows,” Lower Grades

Contact: Preeti Vasishtha, ASA Director of Communications, at (202) 247-9872, [email protected]

Washington, DC—The “Broken Windows” theory of policing, applied in New York and other major American cities since the early ‘90s, has been credited in some quarters with reducing crime.  Stopping, warning and even arresting perpetrators of low-impact crimes like vandalism and disorderly behavior, says the theory, contributes to a more cohesive neighborhood and a setting less likely to attract violent crime.

While criminologists continue to debate the impact of the practice, new research from two sociologists demonstrates that this sort of aggressive policing has a negative impact on the scholastic performance of African American young teenagers in the affected neighborhoods. The study by Joscha Legewie, assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, and Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law and epidemiology at Columbia University, found that for African American boys aged 13-15, the stress of even potential interaction with law enforcement lowered educational performance and added to inequality of economic outcomes.

In the April issue of the America Sociological Review , the two researchers credit broken-windows programs like New York’s Operation Impact – the policing program at the center of the study – with temporarily lowering crime rates in the impacted neighborhoods. Operation Impact labeled selected high-crime areas as impact zones and saturated these areas with additional police officers with the mission to engage in aggressive, broken-window policing. Of course, safer neighborhoods should generally contribute to increased academic performance for the children living there.

However, the policing program significantly reduced test scores for African American boys aged 13 to 15 years old even after controlling for many of the factors that could affect academic performance. This finding is based on data from the New York City Department of Education on public school students from the school years 2003/2004 to 2011/2012. The researchers compared changes in test scores before, during, and after Operation Impact for areas affected by the intervention to the same differences for areas designated as impact zones at a different point in time.

The findings show that Operation Impact lowered the educational performance of African American boys, which has implications for child development, economic mobility, and racial inequality. The effect size varies by race, gender, and age. It is substantial for African American boys age 13 to 15, and small and statistically insignificant for other groups.

“These findings provide evidence that the consequences of policing extend into key domains of social life,” said Legewie. “They highlight the hidden costs of aggressive policing programs and suggest that police reformers, policymakers, and researchers should consider these broader implications for assessing the effectiveness of policing.”

Additional analyses provide first evidence on the underlying mechanisms but are limited by the lack of data on student health.  The researchers show that Operation Impact reduced crime, providing evidence for a positive channel through lower crime rates; at the same time they show that Operation Impact reduced school attendance, indicating that system avoidance by young African American teenagers during periods of intense police presence may lead to higher rates of absenteeism. Looking beyond the data to other well-researched interventions in education, the researchers believe that policing programs like Operation Impact can eliminate the positive effects of costly and positive education interventions, at least for older African American boys.

The findings advance understanding about the role of the criminal justice system for youth development and racial/ethnic inequality, Legewie and Fagan conclude. Although much work has been done on the effect of parental incarceration on children, this is the first study demonstrating a negative impact from surge policing on children themselves; the consequences of the criminal justice system are not confined to those incarcerated or arrested but have a much broader impact on the entire community.

Read the entire study, “ Aggressive Policing and the Educational Performance of Minority Youth .”

About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is the ASA’s flagship journal.  

1430 K St NW Suite 600 Washington, DC 20005 202.383.9005 [email protected]

Short Wave

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

Shankar Vedantam 2017 square

Shankar Vedantam

Chris Benderev

Chris Benderev

Tara Boyle 2018 square

Renee Klahr

Maggie Penman

Maggie Penman

Jennifer Schmidt, photographed for NPR, 13 November 2019, in Washington DC.

Jennifer Schmidt

broken window theory in sociology

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.

Hidden Brain

Broken windows, episode 50: broken windows.

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.

broken window theory

Ivy Wigmore

Broken window theory is the concept that each problem that goes unattended in a given environment affects people's attitude toward that environment and leads to more problems.

As a corollary to the theory, when an environment is well-tended and problems dealt with as they arise, that also affects attitudes and leads to continued good management and maintenance. The theory first appeared in a 1982 article ("Broken Windows") in The Atlantic by two social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Here's how the authors explain the phenomenon:

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.

In a business context, broken window theory is applied not only to elements of the physical workplace environment but any kind of outstanding issue that has not been promptly dealt with. Problems like absenteeism, information silos, poor human resource management , overwork, burnout , oppressive or disconnected corporate cultures  and a lack of employee engagement can each be considered analagous to a  broken window.

Continue Reading About broken window theory

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