• Nicolas Claidière

Experimental evidence for the Broken Window Theory

In the late 80’s, New York experienced a high rate of violence and crack was everywhere. In 1985 when George L. Kelling, coauthor of the article “ Broken Windows “, was hired as a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority, the subway was awfull. Kelling implemented new measures. He made every graffiti disappear and cleaned every station. Day after day after day, new graffitti would be made in the night and removed during the day, until oneday the new policy started to be successful and graffiti progressively disappeared. Mayor and police department of New York also employed the same method, they implemented a zero tolerance policing with easier arrestee procedure. Police started enforcing the law very strictly, against subway fare evasion, public drinkers, urinators, and the like. The rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly.

New York crime and drug decline is one of the best example of a successful implementation of the Broken Window Theory (BWT). BWT states that signs of disorder, like graffiti, dirty streets, broken windows… induce more disorder. Not only more graffitti and other petty crimes, but also more serious crimes like murder, robbery, etc. Consequently, removing the minor signs of disorder is thought to induce a decrease in the amount of more serious crimes.

Figure: Minor signs of disorder in Paris, France (author: Jean-noël Lafargue).

The BWT has been implemented in many cities around the world, with some success, but until now, the causal arrow leading from minor crime to more serious ones has remained highly speculative.

In a recent paper , Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg and Linda Steg conduct insightful and delightful field experiments to assess the BWT. I’ll detail just one example to give you the flavour of the six experiments. In one setting they looked at whether individuals would steal an envelope visibly containing a five euro note. “The white (addressed) window envelope sticking out of a mailbox (situated in Groningen) was very noticeable for everyone approaching the mailbox, and it was clearly visible that the envelope contained a €5 note”. In the baseline condition the mail box and the ground surrounding it were clean. In one test condition the mail box was covered with graffitti and in another the ground was covered with litter.

The results were quite dramatic, the rate of robbery doubled between the baseline and the “disorder” conditions! In the baseline condition, 13% of passer-bys stole the envelope, with graffitti this rate raised to 27% and with litter to 25%.

The authors conclude: “There is a clear message for policymakers and police officers: Early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder. Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behavior (e.g., litter or stealing), which in turn results in the inhibition of other norms (i.e., a general weakening of the goal to act appropriately). So once disorder has spread, merely fixing the broken windows or removing the graffiti may not be sufficient anymore. An effective intervention should now address the goal to act appropriately on all fronts.”

Abstract of the paper:

Imagine that the neighborhood you are living in is covered with graffiti, litter, and unreturned shopping carts. Would this reality cause you to litter more, trespass, or even steal? A thesis known as the broken windows theory suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behavior trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behavior, thus causing the behavior to spread. This may cause neighborhoods to decay and the quality of life of its inhabitants to deteriorate. For a city government, this may be a vital policy issue. But does disorder really spread in neighborhoods? So far there has not been strong empirical support, and it is not clear what constitutes disorder and what may make it spread. We generated hypotheses about the spread of disorder and tested them in six field experiments. We found that, when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread

“Broken Windows” by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, Atlantic Monthly, March 1982.

“The Spreading of Disorder” Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg, Science, December 2008.

Kate Devitt 17 December 2008 (03:23)

The experimental results show that petty crime can be increased. But, I worry about extending such results to the more substantive thesis that increased petty crime increases serious crime, such as murder and rape. I remember reading in Freakanomics (Levitt & Dubner, 2005) that the more likely cause of a reduction in serious crime in New York was the introduction of legalized abortion in the 70s. I don’t know if they’re right, but it is another perspective to take, and another reminder not to conflate correlation with causation. Intuitively there is a large psychological difference between petty crimes and substantive crimes, a difference that is reflected in our legal system. I wonder if it is a wowse-rish response to believe that scribbling on transport connects meaningfully with violent crime? Of course, we cannot test violent crime experimentally, which means we’re stuck observing petty theft, littering and other minor infractions in our research centres. Reference: Levitt, S & Dubner, S. (2005) Freakonomics. William Morrow.

guest guest 17 December 2008 (09:55)

has anyone discussed using this as a diffuse, low intensity urban guerrilla tactic, i.e. causing somebody’s territory to become unstable by destabilising the behavior of its citizen with minor signs of disorder? what about delegitimizing an incumbent on the eve of a political election?

Olivier Morin 17 December 2008 (10:43)

I share in Kate’s skepticism, although Levitt and Dubner’s debunking of the BWT is itself controversial. But if you don’t take Levitt and Dubner’s argument, consider the fact that another team considers that the downward trend in serious crime that was attributed to broken window policies could be predicted by a rudimentary regression to the mean model. And of course there is the crack trade, the fact that crime also abated in cities that did not adopt a broken window policy, etc.

The funny thing about the paper by Keizer et al. is that, while parading as a scientific rehabilitation of BWT (that’s how it has been received in, e.g., The Economist) it contributes almost nothing to the actual controversy. We still do not know whether repairing broken windows has a significant impact on serious crime. All Keizer et al. do is illustrate the theory with experiments that do not adress the controversial question, i.e. the impact on serious crime in the real world. Given the political importance of adopting or rejecting zero-tolerance policies, we might want to trust real social scientists on these issues.

Ophelia Deroy 17 December 2008 (11:17)

I had just read this paper – wondering whether it would cast light on the sudden spreading of disorder in recent riots – (Greece, Paris, etc.). It is true that in the 2006 riots, there was no ” disorder ” in the clean, smart areas of Paris, but, as Kate Devitt points out, disorder is not just petty crime (let’s say that breaking shopwindows and setting cars on fire is more than littering, or making noise late). The paper is not entirely convincing though, and I am not sure of its conclusion. Keizer’s inspiration is what he calls the ” Cialdini effect ” (also known as ” bandwagon effect ”) i.e. people’s tendency to reason (his word) “if a lot of people are doing A, it’s probably a wise thing to A” and to do what they observe others are doing (R.B. Cialdini, Psychometrika 72 (2), 263 (2007)). At first, it seems that what is at stake is a sort of negative version of it, i.e. people’s tendency to reason : ” it a lot of people are not doing A, it’s probably okay not to do A either. ” But the paper doesn’t then say much about the fact that this involve an explicit inference or an implicit one (or what ?).

Still, the idea seems to be that the violation of the tested norm (do not litter, for instance) results from such an explicit inference : it’s already quite a reflexive one, for the inference starts with the ” observed violation ” of a certain nom (the perception of a conflict between a sign ” no graffiti ” and a wall full of graffitis). What the authors are concerned with though is that this inference results in people’s thinking they are entitled to violate another norm (or feeling they are entitled ?- it isn’t clear here). They call it ” cross-normative ” effect.

Let’s then agree that the inference does not concern the observed action A per se (doing graffitis) but the fact that the action is a violation of the norm ” don’t do A ”. But what the experiments show actually is ambivalent between : (1) ” If people don’t respect norm A, then it’s okay for me not to respect norm B either”. (their ”cross-normative ” conclusion ) (2) ” If people don’t respect social norms (let’s call this S), then it’s okay for me not to respect social norms either ” (a more direct process, with no ” crossing ” involved). The experiments provide them with a special occasion to test their respect of social norms – like littering or not littering. But there is no need to say that it was the breaking of the ” no littering norm ” that was suddenly made OK by the seeing of another violation, let’s say of the ” no graffiti ” norm.

Nor do they really provide very good arguments against the fact that people are doing a risk-evaluation (not thinking about the breaking of the norm being suddenly okay, but thinking it’s not too risky in the circumstane not to comply with the rule, still seen as the appropriate thing to do). So the inference could go the following way : (3) ” If people haven’t been caught doing A, then i won’t certainly be caught doing B ” (another cross-normative inference) (4) or ” If people haven’t been caught breaking social norms (S), then i won’t be caught either if I do so ” (without crossing)

They try and answer this point, true, but not in all their experiments. In the experiment 1, they say that ” littering is not generally punished by the police, as graffiti are ” – but what does generally mean ? It’s quite different whether there is no sanction, or there can be, even though it is rare. And doesn’t it make the inference all the more tempting : ” if people haven’t been caught doing something usually punished, i probably won’t be caught doing something even less usually punished ” ? The fact that people could reason from evaluating probabilities of being caught disappears from experiments 2 to 4 – where it is much wanted. And at the end, they argue for a complicated story, far from the inferential mechanism initially at stake : ” people don’t necessarily copy the inappropriate behavior they observe but let concerns other than appropriateness take center stage ”. The story seems now to go as a des-inhibition process : it ” lets ” other concerns take center stage. Or perhaps do they mean that the inference is something close to (2) : (2’) ” If people let other concerns other than complying to social norms govern their behaviour, then it’s okay to do the same thing ” (in which case, it’s more like a Cialdini effect).

I don’t mean to argue for the explicit inferential model in such spreading of disorder, nor to put as a constraint that the behaviour has to be copied, and the same kind of action to occur in antecedent and the consequent of the inference, or in observation. I have nothing against the idea there can be cases of less straightforward imitations, or transmissions, and I am certainly sympathetic also to the idea it is less explicit (at least in the first experiment, the fact that the place is not clean can influence behaviour in several ways – see for instance recent experiments by Schnall et al. ”Disgust and Embodied Moral Judgement” , Pers.Psych. Bull. (2008) : here ). I also don’t share some of the intuitions behind the experimental setting : is putting the flyer on someone’s bike a form of ” littering ” ? Do you break a norm if you give it to someone else of the community to do the right thing instead of you ? That would mean that lots of our actions are actually breaking social norms.

Nicolas Claidière 19 December 2008 (09:33)

I agree with many of the comments which have been raised so far and concern the general issue of the implementation of the Broken Window Theory and its policing consequences. I think it is quite clear that the paper by Keizer, Lindenberg and Steg is not meant to prove the Broken Window Theory and to put an end to the debate surrounding the policy we should adopt regarding petty crimes and disorder. The paper is really more modest than that. But still, I think it brings interesting material and raises new interesting questions. Let me clarify what I believe is the contribution of the paper by answering a few questions.

Does the experiment tell us anything about:

1) the link between the implementation of the BWT in New York and the following drop of crime and drug rates?

As pointed out by Kate and Olivier, the matter is quite complicated and many factors beside the BWT implementation may be involved. Indeed, in such a complicated, real life, large time and space scale case, we expect any change to result from the conjunction of several, intimately mixed, factors. In such a case, even if correlational and main component analysis are always possible, they won’t prove anything, they’ll just point to some of the factors which may, or may not, be causally relevant. But then, this should prompt us to perform experiments in which the potential causally efficient factors are studied in isolation, with rigorous testing. I believe this is just what Keizer, Lindenberg and Steg have done. In a modest way, I agree, they haven’t proven the theory, no doubt, but they have brought evidence supporting it, which is great.

2) the broken window theory?

I certainly agree, as do the authors of the paper would probably do, that there is a huge gap between stealing a five euro note and stealing a bank. But there is also quite a difference between littering and stealing a five euro note. One may consider, for simplicity, because obviously we can make many more categories, that there are three different categories. Say: disorder (e.g. littering), petty crimes (e.g. stealing five euros) and serious crimes (e.g. stealing a bank). The BWT, as I understand it, assumes that there is a causal link throughout all three categories. The present experiments show that there is a causal influence of disorder on petty crimes. This may, or may not, extend to more serious crime, I agree. But as pointed out by Kate, it is quite difficult to experiment with serious crimes, we are therefore left with correlational analysis. Showing that disorder has an effect on petty crimes is not a definitive argument but lends support to the idea that petty crimes may influence more serious ones.

3) the larger effects at the community level?

The article definitely does not address this issue, but one way to go, as suggested by Stephano, would be to test whether minor signs of disorder destabilizes the behaviour of the local citizens. This was indeed the first idea that Kelling put forward in his original paper of 1982 (see link in the post).

4) the psychology of disorder?

How does disorder psychologically influence petty crimes? Ophelia raises interesting questions about the psychological processes that may be involved. Although I think the claim that there is a causal link between disorder and petty crimes is not questioned by the view we adopt on how this link is psychologically realized, this is an important issue following from this research.

5) the policy we should implement?

It is true that Broken Window Theory has been associated with zero tolerance policy and I agree that it would have been nice to insist on the independence of the two in the paper to prevent misreading. But the BWT is a claim about what people do, not what we ought to do about it. In fact, it is interesting to read the original paper of Kelling in which he militates against a zero tolerance policy. In that paper he explains that a community has its own relative rules defining what one can or can not do and that policies should be made so as to preserve these rules. It is very clear in the paper that the rules are only local and should be only locally preserved. If I remember well he also explains that BWT does not imply that we need to legislate about every minor theft. Quite the opposite, what we ought to do, he insists, is to restore foot patrols of policemen because those policemen progressively come to understand and enforce the local rules of the community to potential violators (often non aggressively he observes). Of course this could also bring other difficulties, you have to be extra careful when you give such responsibilities to someone. Anyhow, I think this shows the connections between BWT and policy are quite loose and the message ”take care of broken windows” a very reasonable one.

guest guest 19 December 2008 (18:16)

The leap from low-level vandalism and graffiti to rape and murder is a large one. But, as Ophelia suggests, the leap to disorder, setting fire to cars, looting etc isn’t so great. And if these get out of hand, people get hurt and even die. Personal anecdotes aren’t reliable scientific indicators, but here’s something that happened to me. I was working late in west London. I locked up my office and went to my car (an old-style Mini), around 1.00 am. I found that all my car windows had been smashed. A Police car drove past, I caught the officer’s attention, and he came over to me. I felt angry, but also exhausted. Could I just go home and deal with the mess in the morning? Absolutely not, he told me. By morning, my car would probably have been set on fire. So I had to get towed, in the rain, sat in a car with no windows, to a garage that would take the car at 3.00 am. Nice. The Policeman suggested what had happened, based on his local experience. First, a thief broke one window. Typically a thief breaks a window without attempting to get into the car. He comes back five minutes later, to check if anyone has reacted to his initial broken window. No one had, but he found nothing in the car worth stealing. Later, others walked past the car, saw the broken window, and also noticed that no one had reacted to it. So they joined in, smashing more of my windows. The motive was not theft, but the sheer pleasure of destruction. The point about the Cialdini Effect is that people see evidence that other lawbreakers are “getting away with it” – that such destructive actions are not being deterred or punished. Therefore the inhibition on destructiveness is reduced.

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Broken Windows Theory

How Environment Impacts Behavior

Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.

broken window theory real life examples

Akeem Marsh, MD, is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist who has dedicated his career to working with medically underserved communities.

broken window theory real life examples

Verywell / Dennis Madamba

Origins and Explanation

  • Application
  • Impact on Behavior
  • Positive Environments

The broken windows theory was proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, arguing that there was a connection between a person’s physical environment and their likelihood of committing a crime.

The theory has been a major influence on modern policing strategies and guided later research in urban sociology and behavioral psychology . But it’s also come under increasing scrutiny and some critics have argued that its application in policing and other contexts has done more harm than good.

The theory is named after an analogy used to explain it. If a window in a building is broken and remains unrepaired for too long, the rest of the windows in that building will eventually be broken, too. According to Wilson and Kelling, that’s because the unrepaired window acts as a signal to people in that neighborhood that they can break windows without fear of consequence because nobody cares enough to stop it or fix it. Eventually, Wilson and Kelling argued, more serious crimes like robbery and violence will flourish.

The idea is that physical signs of neglect and deterioration encourage criminal behavior because they act as a signal that this is a place where disorder is allowed to persist. If no one cares enough to pick up the litter on the sidewalk or repair and reuse abandoned buildings, maybe they won’t care enough to call the police when they see a drug deal or a burglary either.

How Is the Broken Windows Theory Applied?

The theory sparked a wave of “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” policing where law enforcement began cracking down on nonviolent behaviors like loitering, graffiti, or panhandling. By ramping up arrests and citations for perceived disorderly behavior and removing physical signs of disorder from the neighborhood, police hope to create a more orderly environment that discourages more serious crime.

The broken windows theory has been used outside of policing, as well, including in the workplace and in schools. Using a similar zero tolerance approach that disciplines students or employees for minor violations is thought to create more orderly environments that foster learning and productivity .

“By discouraging small acts of misconduct, such as tardiness, minor rule violations, or unprofessional conduct, employers seek to promote a culture of accountability, professionalism, and high performance,” said David Tzall Psy.D., a licensed forensic psychologist and Deputy Director for the Health and Wellness Unit of the NYPD.

Criticism of the Broken Window Theory

While the idea that one broken window leads to many sounds plausible, later research on the topic failed to find a connection. “The theory oversimplifies the causes of crime by focusing primarily on visible signs of disorder,” Tzall said. “It neglects underlying social and economic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, and lack of education, which are known to be important contributors to criminal behavior.”

When researchers account for those underlying factors, the connection between disordered environments and crime rates disappears.

In a report published in 2016, the NYPD itself found that its “quality-of-life” policing—another term for broken windows policing—had no impact on the city’s crime rate. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of “quality-of-life” summons issued by the NYPD for things like open containers, public urination, and riding bicycles on the sidewalk dropped by about 33%.

While the broken windows theory would theorize that serious crimes would spike when the police stopped cracking down on those minor offenses, violent crimes and property crimes actually decreased during that same time period.

“Policing based on broken windows theory has never been shown to work,” said Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW , a therapist who works with marginalized teens and young adults. “Criminalizing unhoused people, low socioeconomic status households, and others who create this type of ‘crime’ doesn't get to the root of the problem,”

Not only have policing efforts that focus on things like graffiti or panhandling failed to have any impact on violent crime, they have often been used to target marginalized communities. “The theory's implementation can lead to biased policing practices as law enforcement officers can concentrate their efforts on low-income neighborhoods or communities predominantly populated by minority groups,” Tzall said.

That biased policing happens, in part, because there’s no objective measure of disordered environments so there’s a lot of room for implicit bias and discrimination to influence decision-making about which neighborhoods to target in crackdowns.

Studies show that neighborhoods where residents are predominantly Black or Latino are perceived as more disorderly and prone to crime than neighborhoods where residents are mostly white, even when police-recorded crime rates and physical signs of physical deterioration in the environment were the same.

Moreover, many of the behaviors that are used by police and researchers as signs of disorder are influenced by racial and class bias . Drinking and hanging out are both legal activities that are viewed as orderly when they happen in private spaces like a home or bar, for example. But those who socialize and drink in parks or on stoops outside their building are viewed as disorderly and charged with loitering and public drunkenness.

The Impact of Physical Environment on Behavior

While the broken windows theory and its application are flawed, the underlying idea that our physical environment can influence our behavior does hold some water. On one hand, “the physical environment conveys social norms that influence our behavior,” Tzall explained. “When we observe others adhering to certain norms in a particular space, we tend to adjust our own behavior to align with them.”

If a person sees litter on the street, they might be more likely to litter themselves, for example. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make the leap from littering to robbery or violent assault. Moreover, litter can often be a sign that there aren’t enough public trashcans available on the streets for people to throw away food wrappers and other waste while they’re out. In that scenario, installing more trashcans would do far more to reduce litter than increasing the number of citations for littering.

“The design and layout of spaces can also signal specific expectations and guide our actions,” Tzall explained. In the litter example, then, the addition of more trashcans could also act as an environmental cue to encourage throwing trash away rather than littering.

How to Create Positive Environments to Foster Safety, Health, and Well-Being

Ultimately, reducing crime requires addressing the root causes of poverty and social inequality that lead to crime. But taking care of public spaces and neighborhoods to keep them clean and enjoyable can still have a positive impact on the communities who live in and use them.

“Positive environments provide opportunities for meaningful interactions and collaboration among community members,” Tzall said. “Access to green spaces, recreational facilities, mental health resources, and community services contribute to physical, mental, and emotional health,” said Tzall.

By creating more positive environments, we can encourage healthier lifestyle choices—like adding protected bike lanes to encourage people to ride bikes—and prosocial behavior —like adding basketball courts in parks to encourage people to meet and play a game with their neighbors.

At the individual level, Tzall suggests people “can initiate or participate in community projects, volunteer for local organizations, support inclusive initiatives, engage in dialogue with neighbors, and collaborate with local authorities or community leaders.” Create positive environments by taking the initiative to pick up litter when you see it, participate in tree planting initiatives, collaborate with your neighbors to establish a community garden, or volunteer with a local organization to advocate for better public spaces and resources. 

Wilson JQ and Kelling GL. Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety . The Atlantic Monthly. 1982.

Harcourt B, Ludwig J. Broken windows: new evidence from new york city and a five-city social experiment . University of Chicago Law Review. 2006;73(1).

Peters M, Eure P. An Analysis of Quality-of-Life Summonses, Quality-of-Life Misdemeanor Arrests, and Felony Crime in New York City, 2010-2015 . New York City Department of Investigation Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD; 2016.

Sampson RJ. Disparity and diversity in the contemporary city: social (Dis)order revisited . The British Journal of Sociology. 2009;60(1):1-31. Doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2009.01211.x

By Rachael Green Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.

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Broken Windows Theory-Definition, Examples, and Applications


Broken windows theory is a criminological concept that recommends maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent minor crimes, such as vandalism or littering. This monitoring can also stop further crimes and create an environment that encourages economic development .

The broken windows theory was developed in 1982 by Wilson and Kelling from the “Conference Board in Community Making.” The same two authors published the concept in a 1982 article in “The Atlantic.”

In the article, Wilson and Kelling suggested that urban disorder (e.g., graffiti or litter) made a neighborhood susceptible to further decline and proposed that “fixing” the problems would prevent further crime.

A layman’s definition of the broken windows theory is if we fix the broken windows in our city, maybe we can prevent more serious crimes from happening.

The Broken Windows Theory in Practice

In New York City, the theory has been used to fight minor crimes by implementing fines for public drinking and urination, turnstile jumping, public nuisance, and excessive noise.

In theory, if the more minor crimes within a neighborhood are addressed, it will prevent further crimes.

For example, if New York City cracks down on people drinking out in the open and urinating on city streets, people will be less likely to congregate. This crackdown will reduce other crimes like littering or vandalism.

To address the broken windows theory, it is important to understand the causes of criminal activity.

The broken windows theory suggests that criminals are more likely to commit additional crimes if they see broken windows, graffiti, and other signs of decay in urban areas. These criminals feel like they are part of the area, so they must protect it.

The broken windows theory has shown some high levels of correlation between crime levels and disorder. Still, there are many debates about how much influence it has on the actual causation of crime.

Broken Windows Policing

Another crime-fighting approach that is also effective is community policing, linked to decreases in both violent and property crime in the United States.

Community policing has been shown to positively affect police legitimacy, willingness among citizens to provide information about crimes, and crime reporting .

Broken windows policing is a term for a proactive policing strategy that focuses on the crime-producing conditions in an area. These conditions include incivilities, disrepair, low-level crime, and the visible signs of out-of-place people.

To implement broken windows policing, one must first identify the crime-producing conditions in an area. After identifying these conditions, one should develop a plan to eliminate them.

Reduction of visible signs of incivilities and disorder, such as public drinking or graffiti, is a vital element of broken windows policing.

The strategy for broken windows policing can be broken down into three steps:

  • Identify problematic conditions within a neighborhood that are related to crime (e.g., graffiti, litter, abandoned buildings, etc.)
  • Address those problems through environmental design and other means (e.g., working with property owners)
  • Maintain those changes after they have been made (e.g., through regular trash pick-up or targeted demolition and renovation of abandoned buildings)

The policing strategies used to maintain order within a neighborhood are the essential factors in reducing crime. Broken windows policing has been an effective strategy in combating crime and disorder.

The Broken Windows Approach in Social Control

broken window theory real life examples

The broken windows approach is a social control theory that centers on the idea that crime can be prevented by restoring and maintaining order, including public norms of behavior.

According to George Kelling, social control and order maintenance are public goods that the government should supply. The issues of citizens having to deal with criminals should be uncommon. The only responsibility that civilians have in law maintenance is reporting crime.

The broken windows approach is based on the following principles:

  • A violation of public order will create an environment that encourages additional violations
  • The probability of being caught is a minor concern for those committing minor crimes. The threat of being caught and injured by a concerned citizen, community member, or law enforcement officer is higher.
  • An actual incident is less influential in changing behavior than the perception that an incident will occur

The broken windows approach is a popular crime prevention strategy because it can prevent crimes of opportunity. Making an area appear to be well taken care of can prevent people thinking about committing a crime from acting on those thoughts.

Social scientists and law enforcement officials have been using the broken windows theory since 1982 when Kelling first published an article about it.

A study of targeted police patrol in violent crime areas found that the experimental group had a lower rate of felony crimes than the control group. This study suggests that certain types of police patrol can reduce the number of crimes committed.

Researchers have also found a correlation between police patrols that target disorderly behaviors (e.g., loitering, public intoxication, etc.) and decreased crime.

Lance Lochner of Western Ontario found that unemployment has a minor impact on property crime, supporting the broken windows theory.

However, Lochner also found that poverty has a much more significant impact on larceny and auto theft rates than unemployment.

In a study that compared the effectiveness of drug prevention policies in high-crime areas, individuals who lived in the experimental group were less likely to commit crimes (e.g., theft, burglary, and auto theft) than individuals who lived in the control group.

Broken Windows Theory and Formal Social Control

Formal social control refers to the criminal justice system’s use (e.g., law enforcement, the court system) to prevent crime and maintain social control.

The broken windows theory is closely related to the idea that crime can be prevented through formal social control.

Some criminologists do not believe the broken windows theory is as effective as the proponents suggest.

According to Bernard Harcourt, this is because only a tiny percentage of people will become violent criminals no matter what happens to the physical evidence of disorder in their communities.

According to a 2002 study by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, there is a relationship between the economic status of an individual and the likelihood that they will engage in crime.

In a study of property values, James Q. Wilson and George C. Kelling argued that broken windows, graffiti, and other signs of disorder cause property values to decline rapidly in an urban area.

According to the study, when a broken window is repaired quickly, it sends two messages to residents: that they should respect their community and that the community respects the people who live there.

Informal Social Control and The Broken Windows Theory

In addition to the formal social control efforts, the broken windows theory also suggests informal mechanisms of social control. The latter play an important role in preventing crime.

The broken windows theory relies on informal mechanisms of social control because they are more adaptable than formal ones.

Informal social controls can be broken down into three forms:

  • The desire for approval from others and the fear of shaming
  • A network of informal social control embedded in a community
  • The presence of ethical and moral norms

Informal social control is often self-enforcing. The broken windows theory suggests that communities should exert informal social control. This enforcement is necessary for:

  • Establishing and maintaining social norms of behavior
  • Discouraging deviant behavior , restoring and maintaining order

Some people see informal social control as a violation of civil liberties, while others view it as an effective deterrent to crime.

The broken windows theory suggests that informal social control is beneficial because it puts pressure on those likely to commit crimes.

However, if informal social control becomes too stringent and coercive, it is no longer effective as a deterrent to crime. It can even backfire and have the opposite effect.

You may also be interested in the Strain Theory

The Evolution of Broken Windows Theory

Broken windows have been a contested territory in many cities since the 1980s. In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published an article on broken windows in The Atlantic Monthly that would later become a well-known criminology theory.

The central claim of the broken windows theory is that if left unattended, minor problems can escalate into larger ones and thus contribute to a decline in the social order. A disorder of one type, say a broken window, suggests that other types may be present. The disturbance will likely spread rather than being fixed.

This theory has been criticized as too vague or even racist in its application. However, its influence on law enforcement practices has been felt in many cities.

In 1998, Bernard Harcourt claimed that “broken windows had evolved from a theory to an ideology because of increased police presence in public places”. Although Harcourt’s definition is easily mocked, labelling something as an ideology can be helpful when thinking about how it impacts society.

Other Case Studies to Illustrate the Broken Windows Theory

The precursor experiments.

The precursor experiments were vital in helping James Q. Wilson, and George L. Kelling understand how people would react to a broken window left unattended. These experiments were critical in demonstrating how phenomena such as broken windows can spread over time.

In the first experiment, researchers prompted people to create either a normal or disturbing room. This included replacing a chair with a pile of books on the seat and placing two trash bags filled with crumpled newspaper on the floor. There was also putting a desk against a wall so that it can’t be used.  

The results showed that individuals who saw the disturbing room were more likely to add their disorder touches. These touches included adding a lampshade onto the floor or placing an empty liquor bottle on top of the desk.

The results were similar in a second experiment, where people dining in a restaurant sat near an empty or a piled table. The individuals who ate near the messy table were more likely to move crumbs onto the ground, stack sugar packets, or leave their coats strewn about the chair.

The Albuquerque Study

In the early 1990s, two criminologists sought to test the broken windows theory in a real-life setting. They conducted an experiment in which they identified two areas with high rates of reported crime.

The first area was an alley street in a neighborhood characterized by abandoned buildings, trash, and high crime rates. The second area was a different but similarly poor neighborhood near the first area.

The researchers found that the crime rate was equal for reported robberies in both areas but differed in burglaries. The break-ins and thefts were significantly higher in the second area than in the first.

The researchers concluded that the difference between the two areas was not increased criminals but increased broken windows.

This study showed how disorder could lead to a snowball effect where one broken window begets another, and the entire neighborhood is affected by small acts of disorder.

The Broken Windows Theory in New York City

New York City is a microcosm of the broken windows theory. In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins hired William Bratton as head of the New York City Transit Police. One of Bratton’s first initiatives was to target subway fare evasion, a low-level crime that he believed was linked to more serious crimes.

Bratton also increased the number of police officers patrolling subway stations and trains. Soon after Bratton was hired, the department noticed a significant decrease in crime.

In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor under the banner of a “law and order” campaign. Giuliani sent 200 officers to the subway system, reduced police corruption, and continued the broken windows policy.

Although the extent of Giuliani’s success with crime rates has been contested, he and Bratton were successful in bringing down New York’s crime rate.

Some of the long-term impacts of the broken windows theory are still playing out in New York City. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that he would stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana because it did more harm than good.

However, nearly a year after the new policy was implemented, arrests for low-level marijuana offences were up 50 percent from last year. The increase was partly driven by police officers using public marijuana usage as a pretense for arrest.

The Broken Windows Theory in Los Angeles

Los Angeles was one of the first cities to challenge the broken windows theory. In 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that misdemeanor arrests increased by 1.4 million cases from 1965 to 1990.

During this period, however, the city’s population increased only 13 percent. This increase is particularly noticeable when looking at the number of arrests for misdemeanors, which more than doubled from 1965 to 1990.

This increase in misdemeanor arrests caused citizens, politicians, and police officials to question the broken windows policy. Critics claimed that the broken windows theory was being applied indiscriminately, unfairly targeting poor and minority communities.

The Los Angeles Broken Windows Theory Study

The research that led to the Los Angeles broken windows theory study was a follow-up to an earlier study. It found that a large number of misdemeanor arrests were the result of “contagious policing.”

Contagious policing occurs when the police increase their presence in high crime areas and thus create an environment where everyone is seen as suspicious. This draws more arrests, and the increased presence of police creates a snowball effect. All that effect leads to large numbers of misdemeanor arrests in high crime areas.

According to the study, residents had a “heightened sense of their own perceived dangerousness” when police were present. This meant that the people most impacted by misdemeanor arrests were the most likely to be arrested.

The results of these studies led researchers to question whether or not the broken windows policy was working as well as it could.

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Post-Modern Application of the Broken Windows Theory

In 2001, James Q. Wilson wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal that discusses the broken windows theory and its application to corporate America.

Wilson suggests that a firm’s employees are like broken windows. If the premises of a firm are dirty and unkempt, unidentified strangers wander in and out, a vague sense of disorder is present—then employees will be less productive.

Wilson suggests that the primary role of management is to ensure that the “premises” of the workplace are well-maintained. Wilson also states that employees should be treated like members of a sports team. Each team member is an integral part that should be nurtured and developed to maximize the firm’s performance.

Another post-modern application of the broken windows theory comes from Japanese researchers. Their study believes that the broken window theory can be applied to a firm’s customer relationship.

What is the Relationship Between Disorder and Crime?

Wilson and Kelling were not the first to notice that disorder is related to crime. In 1971, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay wrote an influential book on this topic. They believed that there was a link between community structures, urban conditions, and criminal behavior.

Shaw and McKee found that neighborhoods with physical deterioration suffered higher crime levels than neighborhoods with less physical decline.

The findings of Shaw and McKee are in line with work done by Robert Merton on anomie theory . Merton argued that society creates high levels of strain or pressure that lead to deviant behavior when they cannot achieve the desired goals through legitimate means.

A common argument against broken window theory is that there is no evidence of a direct link between disorder and crime. However, criminologists have believed that the relationship between these two concepts is indirect rather than direct.

Criminologists disagree about whether or not environments cause increased incidents of crime with more disorder. Some experts do believe that there may be a relationship between the two.

These researchers suggest that disorder can lead to frustration, apathy, and fear among community members. These negative emotions often lead to an increase in crime.

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How Does Fear Influence the Broken Window Theory?

In the mid-1990s, fear of crime was at an all-time high in America. This was due to several factors, including rising crime rates and highly publicized violent crimes. These crimes include the Rodney King beating and the OJ Simpson trial.

The broken window theory suggests that when the disorder is visible (such as graffiti, litter, or physical deterioration), nobody cares or is in control. This can lead to an increase in crime because people will assume that they are not being watched.

The broken window theory suggests that disorder encourages crime in two different ways; it can lead to an increase in criminal behavior, and it can lead to a decrease in informal social control such as eyes on the street.

People who commit serious crimes are often acting on opportunities that arise from disorder.

  • For example, someone might commit a robbery if an unlocked door or window provides the opportunity to enter a property.
  • In the same way, people may be less likely to act as informal social control agents when the disorder is present because they feel that nobody else is acting as such.

Zero tolerance Policing

The broken window theory influenced a policing strategy called zero tolerance which rose to prominence in the early 1990s. This strategy was based on the idea that more minor forms of crime should be treated seriously.

Police officers were encouraged to crack down on these crimes to send a message that they would not be tolerated.

The zero-tolerance policing strategy was first implemented in New York City under Police Commissioner William Bratton. Bratton believed that the broken window theory accurately described crime and disorder in a neighborhood.

Bratton used zero-tolerance policing on misdemeanor offenses such as graffiti, turnstile jumping (jaywalking), and marijuana possession. All of these infractions had been previously ignored because law enforcement did not consider them essential.

The zero-tolerance policing strategy was well received by politicians and the media, who liked that it allowed officers to go after criminals aggressively. However, the strategy has been criticized for leading to the increased criminalization of disadvantaged communities.

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Critiques of the Broken Windows Theory

  • Critics of the broken windows theory believe that it is overly aggressive and racist. These critics feel that the policy is part of an unnecessary crackdown on non-violent crimes.
  • Critics also believe that the broken window theory disproportionately targets poor communities and minority groups, who tend to be more heavily policed in these areas.
  • Another critique of the broken windows policy is that it can lead to “contagious policing.” This occurs when police enforcement of low-level crimes leads to more arrests, creating chronic distrust between the community and the police.
  • The broken windows policy also doesn’t take into account individual circumstances. The fact that someone has committed a minor crime doesn’t necessarily mean they are more likely to commit a violent offense.

There are many ethical issues with the Broken Windows Theory, which involves arresting people for misdemeanor crimes with little to no consequences.

  • It was found that the theory led to more arrests for poorer areas. This could be seen as unjust and unethical because it targets a specific segment of people who cannot afford fines and bail.
  • However, these people could otherwise be low-risk offenders because the broken windows theory gives officers no choice but to arrest these people. Even if they are low-risk offenders, the officer may still be inclined to make the arrest.
  • This theory violates the American constitution; the 4th amendment protects Americans from ‘unreasonable searches and seizures. Arresting people for misdemeanors even if they are low-risk violates the 4th amendment. It involves unnecessary arrest.

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One of the broken windows theory’s most significant contributions is its emphasis on how vital social order is for maintaining control within a community. This control is an important theme running throughout Wilson’s and Kelling’s work. The broken windows theory has led to important public policy debates on crime prevention and community policing. This contribution is evident despite the theory’s shortcomings.

broken window theory real life examples

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Apply Broken-Windows Theory to the Police

Police misconduct is widespread, far beyond the countless examples that are captured on cellphone cameras and posted to YouTube.

Police-officer hat and broken window

F or a generation , American cops have aggressively policed many urban neighborhoods based on the premise that cracking down on minor street disorder would avert spikes in more serious crime. While reviled by some, the so-called broken-windows theory is still defended by many in law enforcement. Maybe it’s time they applied it to themselves.

According to the broken-windows theory, just as a building with one broken window is vulnerable to additional vandalism, a neighborhood with visible signs of minor disorder, such as graffiti and littering, is vulnerable to criminal invasion. “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,” George Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote in The Atlantic in 1982. “That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes’ customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently.”

Kelling and Wilson advised police to focus on maintaining order in neighborhoods that hadn’t quite tipped from disorder to violent crime, and emphasized that maintaining order requires more than arresting lawbreakers. They also argued that it requires enforcing the community standards desired by residents of a given neighborhood in a way not easily reconciled with legalistic notions of due process.

“A strong, commendable desire to see that people are treated fairly makes us worry about allowing the police to rout persons who are undesirable by some vague or parochial standard,” they wrote. Many are thus reluctant to give police the discretion to perform “a function that every neighborhood desperately wants them to perform.” For example, “arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”

The case for aggressively enforcing even low-level laws as well as community standards, derived from Kelling and Wilson, influenced policing across the United States, most notably in New York City and Los Angeles under police chief William Bratton, as well as in cities where his deputies were hired as police chiefs. Admirers say the theory contributed to the sharp, sustained declines in violent crime in those cities and beyond, even as critics blame it for unduly onerous policing and mass incarceration.

D avid Brooks: The culture of policing is broken

The attorney Ken White is one of the few people to suggest applying the logic of broken windows to police officers and departments themselves. “If tolerating broken windows leads to more broken windows and escalating crime, what impact does tolerating police misconduct have?” he asked . “Under the Broken Windows Theory, what impact could it have but to signal to all police that scorn for rights, unjustified violence, and discrimination are acceptable norms? Under Broken Windows Theory, what could be the result but more scorn, more violence, and more discrimination?”

Significant evidence substantiates the premise that police misconduct is widespread, far beyond the countless examples that are captured on cellphone cameras and posted to YouTube.

Last year, USA Today published a major database of police misconduct. “Obtained from thousands of state agencies, prosecutors, police departments and sheriffs, the records detail at least 200,000 incidents of alleged misconduct , much of it previously unreported,” the newspaper stated. The records included “more than 110,000 internal affairs investigations by hundreds of individual departments and more than 30,000 officers who were decertified by 44 state oversight agencies ,” as well as “22,924 investigations of officers using excessive force, 3,145 allegations of rape, child molestation and other sexual misconduct and 2,307 cases of domestic violence.” Independent Department of Justice probes into individual police departments, such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, revealed agencies that routinely and brutally violated the civil rights of residents.

Similarly strong evidence suggests that police tolerate misconduct in their ranks. In major surveys of police officers, the Pew Research Center and the National Institute of Justice found that 72 percent disagree that cops in their department who consistently do a poor job are held accountable; 52 percent believe that “it is not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers” and that most cops in their department would not report a colleague they caught driving drunk; and 61 percent think that cops “do not always report even serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.”

Even as police officers appear to let one another off the hook, they often crack down on the residents they’re supposed to protect. In 2013 alone, for example, Ferguson’s municipal court “issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations,” the Department of Justice found. “Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge involving a moving violation results in a license suspension.”

No community should be policed so aggressively. But if Ferguson is over-policed, the police themselves seem to be under-policed. And if police believe that aggressive policing of communities works, then on what basis could they object to a dose of their own medicine?

Tracey L. Meares and Tom R. Tyler: The first step is figuring out what police are for

A good place to start would be requiring police officers to police one another on the job. Pew’s survey of police officers found that 84 percent say “officers should be required to intervene when they believe another officer is about to use unnecessary force,” while just 15 percent say they should not be required to intervene. Apparently, a lot of police officers would find it reasonable if their department imposed a duty to intervene. But many cities enforce no such duty. According to the Police Use of Force Project, they include Anchorage, Atlanta, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Charlotte, Chesapeake, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Durham, El Paso, Fort Wayne, Garland, Glendale, Greensboro, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Irving, Jacksonville, Jersey City, Kansas City, Laredo, Lexington, Lincoln, Long Beach, Louisville, Lubbock, Memphis, Mesa, Nashville, North Las Vegas, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Plano, Reno, Rochester, San Diego, San Jose, Scottsdale, St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Toledo, Tulsa, Wichita, and Winston-Salem.

A duty to intervene would of course include preventing a colleague from needlessly firing a weapon. But it could be interpreted expansively to include, as well, needless use of a baton or pepper spray, needless shoving, or even a lower-level transgression such as needless yelling or needlessly detaining a motorist for an excessive period of time during a routine traffic stop.

More broadly, cities could crack down on cops who refrain from giving fellow cops traffic tickets, get caught fudging a minor detail in a police report, or park their car illegally. Perhaps such a policy would ultimately reduce more egregious examples of special treatment or lawbreaking on the job.

A true broken-windows approach to tackling police misconduct would also go beyond enforcing even minor laws and policies. It would insist on police adherence to neighborhood norms too.

R osa Brooks: Stop training police like they’re joining the military

In the law-review article “ The Good Cop: Knowing the Difference Between Lawful or Effective Policing and Rightful Policing—And Why It Matters ,” the Yale Law School scholar Tracey L. Meares draws a distinction between whether cops are behaving lawfully and whether they are behaving in a way that accords with community views about how they ought to police to retain the public’s support. The law has little capacity “to tell police how to arrest or stop someone in a way that will tend to support police legitimacy,” she observes. “Rookie officers spend literally hours and hours reading law to learn when they are legally allowed to stop, arrest, and search. They are not correspondingly trained about how to conduct themselves so as to create and maintain their legitimacy in the community.”

Just as the broken-windows theory posits that graffiti can lead to drug dealing, one could argue that cops who transgress against a given community’s norms––say, by lawfully but disrespectfully berating someone on a street corner––are contributing to disorder and its consequences.

B roken windows is not my preferred approach to policing. In theory, police officers who enforce order on the streets could do so without resorting to unduly punitive fines and onerous probation requirements. In theory, broken windows need not manifest as racial inequity or mass incarceration. In practice, that’s exactly what has happened, whether due to flaws in the theory itself or flawed implementations of it. Those injustices cannot be ignored even if one grants that many of the police chiefs inspired by broken windows presided over falling violent-crime rates.

Still, those falling crime rates suggest that going after little problems to deter bigger ones may work. And applying that insight to law enforcement is less problematic than applying it to civilians. Constraints on the people whom society vests with a monopoly on violence are more necessary and justifiable than constraints on civilians indulging nonviolent behavior that some see as disorderly.

Insofar as broken windows already influences policing in a given city, constituting its official response to disorder, fairness demands that it be applied to police themselves. Police unions will resist, of course, not wanting their members to be policed as their members police the public. That’s hardly a reason for politicians to back down.

Kelling and Wilson wrote that “outside observers should not assume that they know how much of the anxiety now endemic in many big-city neighborhoods stems from a fear of ‘real’ crime and how much from a sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters.” The protests roiling American cities right now can be understood as conveying a similar message: The anxiety about the police endemic in big cities, especially among black people, is obviously rooted in police shootings and other egregious abuses, but may also stem from lower-level misbehavior that creates the sense that cops don’t respect the neighborhoods or people they’re supposed to protect. Police forces compelled to police themselves aggressively might well find better community relations on the other side, and that suggests that their job will get easier, not harder.

Broken Windows Theory

Ayesh Perera

B.A, MTS, Harvard University

Ayesh Perera has worked as a researcher of psychology and neuroscience for Dr. Kevin Majeres at Harvard Medical School.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Social Psychology.

  • The broken windows theory is a criminological theory which, employing broken windows as a metaphor for anti-social behavior and civil disorder, and links the occurrence of serious crimes with visible signs of incivility in a community (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).
  • The theory holds that policing approaches targeting misdemeanors such as vandalism, fare evasion, public drinking, and loitering can help create an environment favorable to law and order.

Table of Contents

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 the 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 afterward, 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 real life examples

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

Despite its salutary effects, the broken windows theory has been challenged as a fallacious slippery slope argument that fuels fear of youth and class bias (Harcourt, 2009).

Critics have contended that punishing misdemeanors, such as avoiding subway fares, imposes penalties on economic desperation and that such harsh policing discriminates against a society’s lower socio-economic classes and by extension, certain racial minorities.

Another major criticism of the theory holds that policing inspired by the broken windows theory justifies needless rules (e.g., prohibiting people from painting their houses with certain colors) and wasteful government expenditure (e.g., the cost of regular police patrols).

Notwithstanding the criticism, the theory’s proponents adamantly defend its merits against its adversaries. Heather Mac Donald, the author of The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe , for instance, has pointed out that government spending on misdemeanor enforcement interrupts criminal conduct before it could ripen into felony (Donald, 2016).

She has repeatedly noted that “the solution to racial disparities in the criminal-justice system is not to target policing” but “to bring the Black crime rate down” by “revalorizing the two-parent family” (Harcourt, 2009).

In conclusion, denounced by some and praised by others, the broken windows theory remains a controversial means of reducing crime and maintaining law and order.

Further Information

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

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.

Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (2004). Seeing disorder: Neighborhood stigma and the social construction of “broken windows”. Social psychology quarterly, 67(4), 319-342.

Hino, K., & Chronopoulos, T. (2021). A review of crime prevention activities in a Japanese local government area since 2008: Beautiful Windows Movement in Adachi Ward. Crime Prevention and Community Safety, 1-17.

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.

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    Use clear packing tape as a temporary fix, as this provides a great seal that you can see through. Be sure as much dirt and dust is removed as possible from around the window where the tape is to be applied.

  3. Why Is Graffiti Bad?

    Graffiti is considered bad because it is associated with broken window theory and other kinds of street crime. Graffiti is associated with gang activity and tagging behaviors whereby criminal groups indicate the areas they circulate by pain...

  4. 13 Examples of Broken Window Theory

    Broken windows theory can cause this type of thinking. For example, a mayor of a city who is obsessed with minor crimes such as graffiti while

  5. Broken Window Theory in Policing

    An example of broken windows theory can be seen in public restrooms. The inside of restroom stalls is a frequent target of graffiti and

  6. Experimental evidence for the Broken Window Theory

    New York crime and drug decline is one of the best example of a successful implementation of the Broken Window Theory (BWT). BWT states that

  7. The Broken Windows Theory: Origins, Issues, and Uses

    The idea is that physical signs of neglect and deterioration encourage criminal behavior because they act as a signal that this is a place where

  8. Broken windows theory

    The theory suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking, and fare evasion help to create an

  9. What is the 'broken windows' theory? What are some examples of

    The broken windows theory is a criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that

  10. Broken Window Theory Examples

    They used an analogy in which a building or dwelling with a single damaged window will soon have all of its windows shattered if the windows are

  11. Broken Windows Theory: History, Meaning, and Controversy

    Broken windows theory applied to policing proposes that law enforcement is central to restoring the vitality of communities. Having these

  12. Broken Windows Theory-Definition, Examples, and Applications

    The broken windows theory suggests that criminals are more likely to commit additional crimes if they see broken windows, graffiti, and other signs of decay in

  13. Apply Broken-Windows Theory to the Police

    According to the broken-windows theory, just as a building with one broken window is vulnerable to additional vandalism, a neighborhood with

  14. Broken Windows Theory

    Examples of Broken Windows Policing · New York City · Lowell, Massachusetts · Tokyo, Japan.