Theory of Broken windows

Author: Shruti Awati, pursuing LLM from ILS Law College, Pune.

Theory of Broken windows, is the academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows theory as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods. Their theory is linked to disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crimes. This theory had an enormous impact on police policy throughout the 1990s and remained influential into the 21st century. Perhaps the most important application of the theory was in New York City under the direction of Police Commissioner William Bratton. He and others were convinced that the aggressive order-maintenance practices of the New York City Police Department were responsible for the drastic decrease in crime rates within the city during the 1990s. Mr. Bratton began translating theory of Broken windows into practice as the chief of New York City’s transit police from 1990 to 1992. Different Squads of officers were assigned to catch turnstile jumpers, and, as arrests for misdemeanours increased, subway crimes of all types decreased dramatically. In 1994, when he became police commissioner of New York City, Bratton introduced his broken windows-based “quality of life initiative.”

The quality of life initiative hasslowed down the crimes like panhandling,street prostitution, disorderly behaviour, public drinking, and unsolicited windshield washing or other such attempts to obtain cash from drivers stopped in traffic. In 1996, when Bratton resigned, felonies were down almost 40 percent in New York, and the homicide rate had been halved.


Prior to the development and implementation of various incivility theories such as broken windows, law enforcement scholars and police tended to focus on serious crime; that is, the major concern was with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape, robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling took a different view. They saw there is a serious crime happening as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur. Their theory further explains that the prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of people who are convinced that the area is not safe. This withdrawal from the community weakens the social controls that earlier kept criminals under surveillance . Once this process begins, it feeds itself. This Disorder causes crime, and crime causes further disorder and crime.

There are two different types of disorder. The first is physical disorder, typified by vacant buildings, broken windows, abandoned vehicles, and vacant lots filled with trash. The second type of disorder is social disorder, which is typified by aggressive panhandlers, noisy neighbours, and groups of youths congregating on street corners. The line between crime and disorder is mostly blurred, with some experts considering such acts as prostitution and drug dealing as disorder while many people classify them as crimes. While different, these two types of disorder are both thought to increase fear among people. The most important advantage of this theory over many of its criminological predecessors is that it enables initiatives within the realm of criminal justice policy to effect change, rather than relying on social policies. Earlier social disorganization theories and economic theories offered solutions that were costly and that would take a long time to prove effective. Theory of broken windows is seen by many as a way to effect change quickly and with less expense by merely altering the police crime-control strategy. It is far more simpler to attack disorder than it is to attack such ominous social ills as poverty and inadequate education.


Although this theory is popular in both academic and law-enforcement circles, theory of broken windows is not without its critics. One major criticism is that there is little empirical evidence that disorder, when left unchallenged, causes crimes. To give validity to this theory in its entirety, it must be shown that disorder causes fear, that fear causes a breakdown of social controls (sometimes referred to as community cohesion), and that this breakdown of social controls in turn causes serious crime. Finally, crime should be shown to increase levels of disorder.

The most strong empirical support for the theory of broken windows came from the work of a great political scientist Wesley Skogan, who found out that certain kinds of social and physical disorder were related to certain types of serious crime. However, Skogan prudently recommended caution in the interpretation of his results as proof of the validity of the theory of broken windows. Even this qualified support has been questioned by some of the researchers. Byanalysing the Skogan’s data again,a famous political theorist Bernard Harcourt found out that the link between the neighbourhood disorder and snatching of purse, assault, rape, and burglary vanished when the issues like poverty, neighbourhood stability, and race were statistically controlled. Only there is the link between disorder and robbery remained. Harcourt also criticized the theory of broken windows for fostering “zero-tolerance” policies that are prejudicial against the disadvantaged groups of the society.

In his little attempt to link serious crimes with disorder, criminal justice scholar Ralph Taylor found out that there is no distinct pattern of relationships between crime and disorder that is emerged. Rather, some particular disorderly acts were linked to some specific crimes. He concluded that the attention to disorder in general might be an error or mistake and that, while lightly connected, certain acts may not reflect a general state of disorder. He suggested that specific problems would require a very specific solutions. This seemed to provide more support for problem-oriented policing strategies than it did for the theory of broken windows.

In short, the validity of the theory of broken windows is not known. It is safe to conclude that the theory of broken windows does not explain everything and that, even if it is valid, companion theories are necessary to fully explain the technicality of a crime. Alternatively, a more detailed and proper model is needed to consider many more cogent factors. Mostly, the study of the topic has, however, validated the link between disorder and fear. There is also strong support for the belief that fear increases a person’s desire to abandon disorderly communities and move to environments that are more hospitable for him. This option is available to the middle class, who can afford to move, but not to the poor people, who have fewer choices and less income. If the middle class people move out and the poor people stay, the neighbourhood will inevitably become economically disadvantaged. It suggests that the coming next wave of theorization about neighbourhood dynamics and crime may take an economic bent.

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