The “broken windows” theory of policing emerged in the 1980s. In the years since, it has picked up supporters and detractors but remains an approach used by many police departments in the United States.
The theory first gained prominence after criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote about it in The Atlantic. They took a theory from a 1969 experiment and decided to apply it to larger scale.
The study that caught the attention of Kelling and Wilson was done by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He placed two abandoned cars in two very different neighborhoods: a crime-ridden street in New York City and an affluent area of Palo Alto, California.
People started stripping the car in New York City within about 10 minutes. In California, the car sat untouched for a week. But once Zimbardo smashed out a window, passersby began stripping the car.
The conclusion: People are more likely to vandalize and commit a crime if something looks neglected.
The Broken Windows Theory
Working off Zimbardo’s study, Kelling and Wilson created a larger theory that, at the most basic level, said that once disorder begins in a neighborhood, things can quickly get out of control, leading to more crime.
The pair wrote that not addressing signs of decay or neglect can cause a neighborhood to spiral downward. That includes people loitering, trash, graffiti, prostitution and drug use. All these issues signal that no one cares enough to take care of the neighborhood.
Therefore, if police addressed problems such as broken windows and other issues like those listed above, the theory is that they can prevent worse crime from happening.
As Kelling told NPR, “Once you begin to deal with the small problems in neighborhoods, you begin to empower those neighborhoods.” He said such actions lead to residents claiming public spaces and businesses caring about what happens on the street, which in turn prevents crime.
Examples of Broken Windows Policing
New York City implemented the policy in the 1990s and experienced remarkable success. Mayor Rudy Giuliani is an advocate of the theory, which the city put into practice with the police focusing more on small crime such as turnstile jumping in the subway and smoking marijuana in public.
New York City experienced a crime rate drop. However, the crime rate also dropped across the country during that time, including many places where broken window policing was not used.
This has led to a debate over the pros and cons of the theory.
The Pros of Broken Window Policing
There are many arguments for the broken window policing theory. They include the following.
Preventing Larger Crimes
The theory holds that addressing smaller issues can prevent bigger crimes, and the experiment in New York City found that to be the case. In some cases, criminals were caught doing smaller crimes who also ended up being wanted for larger crimes. And a systematic review by Braga, Welsh and Schnell in 2015 found that focusing on cleaning up disorder in a neighborhood had a modest impact on reducing crime.
Many departments now use crime and other statistical data to drive strategy, including New York City and Detroit, where the Manhattan Institute is funding a broken windows approach to law enforcement. The system focuses on using data coupled with what officers see on the streets to prevent crime rather than always responding to it.
The Cons of Broken Window Policing
As the years have passed, many concerns have been raised about broken window policing. They include these key issues.
What Defines Disorder?
One issue is that what one person might see as a signal of disorder is not the same signal to others. A study in Boston found that people think private conflict, not public disorder, is a bigger predictor of crime, according to the Pacific Standard. That raises questions about the wisdom of basing law enforcement decisions on signs of neglect and disorder.
Training the Police Force
In Newark, New Jersey, the relationship between police and minority communities deteriorated because of broken window policing. Residents felt that police were taking too much time dealing with small offenses. Kelling himself told Frontline that he grew concerned over the years that police forces were saying that they had put broken window-style policing into place, but had not properly trained officers. He said, “You don’t just say one day, ‘Go out and restore order.’ You train officers, you develop guidelines.”
Some connect broken windows policing with giving police officers a wider range of authority to detain people because they are tasked with maintaining order. However, In New York City alone, 1.8 million summonses were issued for misdemeanor offenses such as disorderly conduct, public urination, drinking and possessing small amounts of marijuana, according to Frontline.
Debate and Alternatives
People remain passionate on both sides of the debate. Advocates say that police are only enforcing the law and that maintaining order can lower overall crime. Opponents say police have gone too far, especially in minority communities.
In the meantime, alternative approaches have emerged. They include community policing, which involves a return to the “beat cop” idea of having officers assigned to one neighborhood where they get to know the people and the businesses in the area.
Others also point to a need to focus crime prevention efforts on the less than 1% of the population who are involved in about half of all violent crimes. They also want better education on the damaging effects of disorder on the psychology of people who live there, including higher rates of depression and anxiety.