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
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.
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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.
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