Home > General Topics > Broken Windows Theory in the 21st Century

Broken Windows Theory in the 21st Century

In the United States, law enforcement procedures and actions are taken according to scientific principles. Over the last century there were several major theories of crime that influenced law enforcement activities in the field. One of the most important of these theories is the “broken windows” theory. During the course of my internship I was able to observe police officers on the street direct their actions according to the principles of this theory. Since this is a very widely accepted theory, it is very important to define, understand and examine the effects that it has on daily law enforcement procedures.

“Broken windows” is a theory that has originated in the early eighties with an article written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. In this article the authors are reviewing the law enforcement policies of the state of New Jersey from the 1970’s. During those years police departments in that state reinstated foot patrols and focused more on the communities and their fear of crime. The conclusions of authors Wilson and Kelling are that despite the fact that crime levels rose slightly in the time that they conducted their study, the fear of crime in those neighborhoods where officers had patrolled on foot had dropped. The authors concluded that the maintaining of public order in those communities was seen by citizens as an indication of crime reduction and increased safety. Wilson and Kelling use this conclusion to develop their theory, “broken windows” that states that law enforcement agents should focus on combating small community problems and on maintaining order in the streets, and that will eventually lead to less crime (Kelling and Wilson, 10). The theory focuses on the culture of different neighborhoods, and suggests that by keeping the streets clean and in order a culture of order develops in the community. Neighborhoods which are decaying and decadent lead to increased crime, according to this theory, because they create norms of social disorder and disorganization that encourage crime. The theory does not specify exact means for enforcing order and cutting down crime, allowing police agencies to adapt and shape the theory to fit their means and goals.

Ever since it was first published, the “broken windows” theory has gained considerable influence among law enforcement agencies and chiefs throughout the country. The most famous application of the theory is in the large metropolis of New York City, under police Chief William J. Bratton in the mid nineties (Bratton and Kelling, 1). Under the guidance of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bratton imposed a series of tough policies that cracked down on street disorder and city code violations. Arrests for misdemeanors, such as failure to pay parking tickets were encouraged, and the city agencies enforced code violations harshly in an attempt to keep the neighborhoods in order (Harcourt and Ludwig, 6). Crime rates dropped significantly between 1990 and 1998 in New York City, and the Uniform Crime Reports reported an alleged 55 percent reduction in overall crime for those years. Violent crime dropped 51 percent during the same years which resulted in nationwide support for Giuliani and Bratton, and helped the “broken windows” theory gain ground in many police departments around the nation (Macallair, 1). This led to major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles to apply some of the concepts of the theory.

Following the adoption of this theory in major city departments, scholars have begun to develop and carry out studies to better understand the effectiveness of “broken windows”. After the conclusion of these studies, many scholars have attacked the theory and claimed that it is unfounded and that it did not have a significant effect on crime. In a study conducted in 2005, Harcourt and Ludwig state that the sharp reduction of crime in New York City and other major departments in the mid nineties is a result of “mean reversion”, a natural tendency of crime to surge down after years of very high crime rates. The authors argue that the eighties were the years of the “crack epidemic”, during which drugs and street violence helped crime rates rise to astronomical highs, and that the nineties saw a severe reduction in crime rates because of a drop in drug use and trafficking in those major cities (Harcourt and Ludwig, 6). Daniel Macallair conducted a study in 2002 on New York City and San Francisco(which does not use broken windows in its law enforcement policies). By comparing these two cities Macallair concluded that San Francisco had a similar, if not more effective drop in crime rates from 1992 to 1998 than New York City, despite the fact that it had not adopted the “broken windows” principle (Macallair, 1). Violent crime rates dropped more for San Francisco than for New York City in the same years, suggesting that the Californian city’s approach to reduce arrests and cut down on incarceration times (a total opposite of “broken windows”) had been perhaps more effective than New York City’s one (Macallair, 1).

Although many modern studies disprove the effectiveness of “broken windows”, the debate is still raging in academic circles as well as in police agencies nationwide. The county agency where I intern has adopted several principles of the theory. There is a Code Enforcement unit, as well as a Quality of Life unit that both work to maintain the beauty and cleanliness of the neighborhoods of the county, combating code violation in a very strict manner. Arrests for misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct, are encouraged and officers work hard to keep order in the communities. A Crime Prevention unit works with community leaders and neighborhood crime watches to alleviate their concerns on crime and to cut down on disorderly practices in the streets. It is unclear how successful these policies are but the police department where I intern continues to invest millions of dollars to enforce these procedures.

“Broken windows” has been at the forefront of crime reduction efforts in major US cities for the last two decades. It has made officials such as police chief Bratton famous, and allowed them to run for office in higher positions. Beyond the publicity aspect of this theory, police agencies state that reductions in crime rates have occurred following the implementation of “broken windows”. Scholars still debate the usefulness of the theory and ultimately it is up to them to conduct studies to demonstrate whether or not police departments should keep focusing on street order or whether they should move on to other means of law enforcement.


Bratton, William J. and Kelling, George L. 2006. There Are No Cracks in the Broken Windows.New York,NY: National Review Online. http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/bratton_kelling200602281015.asp

Harcourt, Bernard E. and Ludwig, Jens. 2006. Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment.Chicago,IL:University ofChicago Law Review, Vol. 73. http://ssrn.com/abstract=743284

Kelling, George L. and Wilson, James Q. 1982. The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows.Washington,DC: The Atlantic Monthly. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/198203/broken-windows

Macallair, Daniel. 2002. Shattering “Broken Windows”: An Analysis of San Francisco’s Alternative Crime Policies. San Francisco,CA: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. http://www.cjcj.org/pubs/windows/windows.html

  1. March 5, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Signal 108.

  2. March 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you!

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