The Broken Windows Theory
Does Disorder Really Cause Crime?
The broken windows theory has profoundly shaped policing and crime prevention strategies since the 1980s. But does this popular theory really hold up to empirical scrutiny? Let’s take a deeper dive into the evidence behind this influential concept.
Understanding the Broken Windows Theory
First proposed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, the broken windows theory suggests that visible signs of disorder like broken windows, graffiti, and loitering create an environment that encourages further disorder and more serious crimes.
The theory uses the metaphor of broken windows to illustrate how neighborhoods can decline. If a building has a few broken windows that go unrepaired, soon vandals will break a few more windows. Eventually they may even break into the building if the owners seem not to care about the disorder.
Similarly, the theory argues that disorder sends a signal that communities are not in control. If one person breaks windows or commits other misdemeanor crimes without consequences, it can create a perception that deviant behavior is acceptable, leading to more disorder and serious criminal acts.
The broken windows theory states that by eliminating visible signs of disorder through stricter enforcement of minor offenses like vandalism, public drinking, panhandling, and fare evasion, communities can establish law-abiding norms and prevent serious crime from taking root. The idea is that disorder does not inevitably lead to serious crime, but ignoring disorder makes it more likely to occur.
Broken Windows Policing in New York City
The broken windows theory had an enormous impact on policing practices in the 1990s that in many ways still continues today. It became closely associated with the “zero tolerance” policing strategies adopted by the New York City Police Department (NYPD).
When William Bratton became head of the New York City Transit Police in 1990, he focused on cracking down on subway fare evasion and other low-level offenses. As these arrests increased, felonies in the subway dropped dramatically. Bratton was appointed NYPD Commissioner in 1994 and introduced his famous “quality of life initiative” based on the broken windows theory.
This initiative had police aggressively enforce laws against activities like public drinking, graffiti painting, aggressive panhandling, and street prostitution that were seen as disorderly and dangerous. The initiative cracked down on the infamous squeegee men who cleaned car windows at traffic intersections without permission. The NYPD also conducted many stop-and-frisk searches for weapons.
During Bratton’s tenure, felony crime in New York declined significantly each year. The city’s murder rate alone dropped by 50 percent. Bratton gave credit to broken windows policing, though experts also pointed to factors like new computerized tracking systems, a strong economy, and changing drug markets.
After Bratton’s departure in 1996, the broken windows approach continued influencing NYPD’s policing under successors like Commissioner William Safir. Though crime rates rose modestly in the early 2000s, New York retained its status as one of the safest large cities in America.
The allures of the broken windows theory—that it provided a simple solution to crime that did not require major social reform—made it immensely appealing to policymakers. Cracking down on minor disorder offenses was an easy and relatively inexpensive strategy compared to addressing broader socioeconomic problems.
Criticisms of the Broken Windows Theory
While it strongly shaped policing practices in New York and across the U.S., the broken windows theory has drawn many criticisms from researchers questioning its scientific validity.
One issue is that there is limited empirical evidence showing a direct link between physical and social disorder and serious crime rates when other key factors are controlled for. Critics argued the theory made assumptions to link disorder and crime without proving causation.
Criminologist Ralph Taylor examined the connections between specific disorderly behaviors and crimes. He found no consistent pattern showing that visible signs of disorder directly caused higher rates of crime in neighborhoods. The relationships were erratic, suggesting that disorder may sometimes contribute to crime but does not inherently cause it.
Sociologist Robert Sampson studied factors like poverty and instability and concluded that any connection between disorder and crime is likely spurious. His research found that both disorder and certain crimes like assault tend to be byproducts of similar neighborhood conditions like concentrated disadvantage.
Political scientist Bernard Harcourt reanalyzed data frequently cited by broken windows proponents and found that the link between disorder and serious crime disappeared when poverty, instability, and race were accounted for. The only connection that remained was between disorder and robbery victimization.
Harcourt concluded that disorder was likely a symptom rather than cause of crime rates, as impoverished areas tend to have higher levels of both. He argued the theory wrongly emphasized punitive measures instead of addressing economic inequality and social marginalization.
George Kelling, co-creator of broken windows, responded to criticisms by stating the theory does not argue that disorder directly causes serious crime in all cases. Rather, it suggests ignoring disorder makes conditions more favorable for crime by sending a message of indifference. The theory acknowledges that factors like poverty also contribute to crime.
Debates About Discriminatory Enforcement
Critics of broken windows policing also argued it encouraged discriminatory enforcement that disproportionately targeted marginalized groups like the homeless, the mentally ill, youth of color, and LGBTQ individuals.
In New York City, police made hundreds of thousands of stops and frisks annually that critics argued were often based on racial profiling rather than reasonable suspicion of crimes. Over 80 percent of those stopped were African American or Latino. Data showed relatively few stops uncovered guns or other contraband.
The intensive focus on minor offenses also led to accusations that the NYPD was criminalizing homelessness, mental illness, and poverty rather than addressing their root causes. Courts ruled measures like the ban on sleeping in public places violated constitutional rights.
Civil rights organizations alleged broken windows policing created an atmosphere encouraging excessive use of force in encounters stemming from minor offenses. Several notorious cases of NYPD brutality like the deaths of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima occurred during broken windows crackdowns.
Proponents counter that the broken windows theory does not require discriminatory practices. They argue it can be implemented fairly by focusing on neighborhoods and behaviors exhibiting high levels of disorder rather than targeting specific groups. The theory’s creators expressed concerns that it was being applied overly harshly and punitively.
Debates Over the Causes of New York’s Crime Drop
There are also disagreements about how much credit broken windows policing deserves for New York City’s dramatic crime declines of the 1990s.
The extent to which aggressive order maintenance caused this drop remains debated, as crime rates also fell nationally during this period. Some experts attribute New York’s crime decline primarily to other factors:
– Demographic shifts that reduced the number of males most prone to criminal behavior
– An aging population less likely to commit crimes
– Improvements in employment opportunities
– Advances in policing strategies and technology
– Decreases in crack cocaine use
– Gun buyback programs that reduced access to firearms
– Increases in the prison population that incapacitated repeat offenders
Criminologists argue the crime drop likely stemmed from an array of social and policy changes, of which broken windows policing was one contributing factor but not necessarily the deciding one. The theory likely worked in tandem with other innovations in policing and corrections.
Current Status of Broken Windows Theory
While debates around the broken windows theory continue, it maintains strong support among many policymakers and remains influential in policing.
Nonetheless, some departments are pulling back from strict broken windows strategies as concerns grow about over-ticketing and alienating communities. The COVID-19 pandemic also made aggressively enforcing low-level offenses difficult and unsafe.
In New York, recent political shifts have led to reforms reversing aspects of broken windows policing. Current Mayor Eric Adams has aimed to take a more balanced approach focused on addressing dangerous weapon offenses while diverting those with mental illness away from the criminal justice system.
Yet the theory continues impacting departments across the U.S. and globally. Baltimore, Los Angeles, and several European cities have implemented forms of broken windows policing. Skepticism remains among academics, but many officials consider the risks of under-enforcement to be greater than over-policing minor disorder.
The Ongoing Debate
While the broken windows theory seemed to provide a simple solution to high crime rates, the reality remains complex and contested. There is strong evidence that visible signs of disorder generate fear and disinvestment in communities, even if the links to serious crime are less clear.
The theory’s appeal rests in its common-sense logic, though applying it in the real world has revealed many pitfalls. Eliminating discretion and mandating zero-tolerance enforcement can backfire if applied indiscriminately. Yet under-enforcement also carries risks if it allows disorder to fester.
There are still many open questions around this landmark theory that launched decades of debate and reform. Its core ideas will likely continue generating both enthusiasm and apprehension well into the future.
What are your thoughts on the broken windows theory and the evidence for and against it? I’m interested to hear perspectives from both supporters and critics on this hotly debated concept.
Summary of “The Broken Windows Theory: Does Disorder Really Cause Crime?”
Introduction to the Broken Windows Theory
– Proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982.
– Suggests that visible disorder encourages more serious crimes.
– Uses the metaphor of broken windows to illustrate neighborhood decline.
– Disorder signals a lack of community control.
– Ignoring minor disorder makes serious crime more likely.
– Stricter enforcement of minor offenses can establish law-abiding norms.
Impact on Policing in New York City
– Influenced “zero tolerance” policing in NYC in the 1990s.
– Led to crackdowns on subway fare evasion and low-level offenses.
– Crime rates, including murder, decreased significantly during this period.
Criticisms of the Theory
– Limited empirical evidence of a direct link between disorder and serious crime.
– Some argue that disorder and crime are byproducts of similar neighborhood conditions.
– Concerns that the theory encouraged discriminatory enforcement.
Debates About New York’s Crime Drop
– Debate over how much credit broken windows policing deserves for crime declines.
– Other factors like demographics, employment, and drug use also contributed.
– Strong support among policymakers and continued influence in policing.
– Some departments are moving away from strict broken windows strategies.
– Ongoing debate between over-policing and under-enforcement.
– The theory’s appeal lies in its common-sense logic.
– Still many open questions and ongoing debate about its effectiveness and implications.