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Broken Windows Theory

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The broken windows theory states that visible signs of disorder and misbehavior in an environment encourage further disorder and misbehavior, leading to serious crimes. The principle was developed to explain the decay of neighborhoods, but it is often applied to work and educational environments.

What Is the Broken Windows Theory?

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The broken windows theory, defined in 1982 by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling, drawing on earlier research by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, argues that no matter how rich or poor a neighborhood, one broken window would soon lead to many more windows being broken: “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” Disorder increases levels of fear among citizens, which leads them to withdraw from the community and decrease participation in informal social control.

What do “broken windows” mean?

The broken windows are a metaphor for any visible sign of disorder in an environment that goes untended. This may include small crimes, acts of vandalism, drunken or disorderly conduct, etc. Being forced to confront minor problems can heavily influence how people feel about their environment, particularly their sense of safety.  

What is an example of the broken windows theory?

With the help of small civic organizations, lower-income Chicago residents have created over 800 community gardens and urban farms out of burnt buildings and vacant lots. Now, instead of having trouble finding fresh produce, these neighborhoods have become go-to food destinations. This example of the broken windows theory benefits the people by lowering temperatures in overheated cities, increasing socialization, reducing stress , and teaching children about nature.

Who created the broken windows theory?

George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson popularized the broken windows theory in an article published in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic . They asserted that vandalism and smaller crimes would normalize larger crimes (although this hypothesis has not been fully supported by subsequent research). They also remarked on how signs of disorder (e.g., a broken window) stirred up feelings of fear in residents and harmed the safety of the neighborhood as a whole.

Where were broken windows policies first implemented?

The broken windows theory was put forth at a time when crime rates were soaring, and it often spurred politicians to advocate policies for increasing policing of petty crimes—fare evasion, public drinking, or graffiti—as a way to prevent, and decrease, major crimes including violence. The theory was notably implemented and popularized by New York City mayor Rudolf Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton. In research reported in 2000, Kelling claimed that broken-windows policing had prevented over 60,000 violent crimes between 1989 and 1998 in New York City, though critics of the theory disagreed.

Does Broken Windows Policies Work?


Although the “Broken Windows” article is one of the most cited in the history of criminology , Kelling contends that it has often been misapplied. The implementation soon escalated to “zero tolerance” policing policies, especially in minority communities. It also led to controversial practices such as “stop and frisk” and an increase in police misconduct complaints.

Most important, research indicates that criminal activity was declining on its own, for a number of demographic and socio-economic reasons, and so credit for the shift could not be firmly attributed to broken-windows policing policies. Experts point out that there is “no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship,” contends Columbia law professor Bernard E. Harcourt. The causes of misbehavior are varied and complex.

Is the broken windows model effective?

The effectiveness of this approach depends on how it is implemented. In 2016, Dr. Charles Branas led an initiative to repair abandoned properties and transform vacant lots into community parks in high-crime neighborhoods in Philadelphia, which subsequently saw a 39% reduction in gun violence. By building “palaces for the people” with these safe and sustainable solutions, neighborhoods can be lifted up, and crime can be reduced.  

Can repairing “broken windows” make the economy grow?

When a neighborhood, even a poor one, is well-tended and welcoming, its residents have a greater sense of safety. Building and maintaining social infrastructure—such as public libraries, parks and other green spaces, and active retail corridors—can be a more sustainable option and improve the daily lives of the people who live there.

Does a broken windows approach lead to more aggressive policing?

According to the broken windows theory, disorder (symbolized by a broken window) leads to fear and the potential for increased and more severe crime. Unfortunately, this concept has been misapplied, leading to aggressive and zero-tolerance policing. These policing strategies tend to focus on an increased police presence in troubled communities (especially those with minorities and lower-income residents) and stricter punishments for minor infractions (e.g., marijuana use).  

What is meant by zero tolerance?

Zero-tolerance policing metes out predetermined consequences regardless of the severity or context of a crime. Zero-tolerance policies can be harmful in an academic setting, as vulnerable youth (particularly those from minority ethnic/racial backgrounds) find themselves trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline for committing minor infractions. 

What type of policing reduces crime?

Aggressive policing practices can sour relationships between police and the community. However, problem-oriented policing—which identifies the specific problems or “broken windows” in a neighborhood and then comes up with proactive responses—can help reduce crime. This evidence-based policing strategy  has been shown to be effective. 

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broken window theory in hindi

The broken windows theory of policing suggested that cleaning up the visible signs of disorder — like graffiti, loitering, panhandling and prostitution — would prevent more serious crime as well. Getty Images/Image Source hide caption

The broken windows theory of policing suggested that cleaning up the visible signs of disorder — like graffiti, loitering, panhandling and prostitution — would prevent more serious crime as well.

Hidden Brain

Broken windows, episode 50: broken windows.

In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University, ran an interesting field study. He abandoned two cars in two very different places: one in a mostly poor, crime-ridden section of New York City, and the other in a fairly affluent neighborhood of Palo Alto, Calif. Both cars were left without license plates and parked with their hoods up.

After just 10 minutes, passersby in New York City began vandalizing the car. First they stripped it for parts. Then the random destruction began. Windows were smashed. The car was destroyed. But in Palo Alto, the other car remained untouched for more than a week.

Finally, Zimbardo did something unusual: He took a sledgehammer and gave the California car a smash. After that, passersby quickly ripped it apart, just as they'd done in New York.

This field study was a simple demonstration of how something that is clearly neglected can quickly become a target for vandals. But it eventually morphed into something far more than that. It became the basis for one of the most influential theories of crime and policing in America: "broken windows."

Thirteen years after the Zimbardo study, criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote an article for The Atlantic . They were fascinated by what had happened to Zimbardo's abandoned cars and thought the findings could be applied on a larger scale, to entire communities.

"The idea [is] that once disorder begins, it doesn't matter what the neighborhood is, things can begin to get out of control," Kelling tells Hidden Brain.

In the article, Kelling and Wilson suggested that a broken window or other visible signs of disorder or decay — think loitering, graffiti, prostitution or drug use — can send the signal that a neighborhood is uncared for. So, they thought, if police departments addressed those problems, maybe the bigger crimes wouldn't happen.

"Once you begin to deal with the small problems in neighborhoods, you begin to empower those neighborhoods," says Kelling. "People claim their public spaces, and the store owners extend their concerns to what happened on the streets. Communities get strengthened once order is restored or maintained, and it is that dynamic that helps to prevent crime."

Kelling and Wilson proposed that police departments change their focus. Instead of channeling most resources into solving major crimes, they should instead try to clean up the streets and maintain order — such as keeping people from smoking pot in public and cracking down on subway fare beaters.

The argument came at an opportune time, says Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt.

"This was a period of high crime, and high incarceration, and it seemed there was no way out of that dynamic. It seemed as if there was no way out of just filling prisons to address the crime problem."

An Idea Moves From The Ivory Tower To The Streets

As policymakers were scrambling for answers, a new mayor in New York City came to power offering a solution.

Rudy Giuliani won election in 1993, promising to reduce crime and clean up the streets. Very quickly, he adopted broken windows as his mantra.

It was one of those rare ideas that appealed to both sides of the aisle.

Conservatives liked the policy because it meant restoring order. Liberals liked it, Harcourt says, because it seemed like an enlightened way to prevent crime: "It seemed like a magical solution. It allowed everybody to find a way in their own mind to get rid of the panhandler, the guy sleeping on the street, the prostitute, the drugs, the litter, and it allowed liberals to do that while still feeling self-righteous and good about themselves."

Giuliani and his new police commissioner, William Bratton, focused first on cleaning up the subway system, where 250,000 people a day weren't paying their fare. They sent hundreds of police officers into the subways to crack down on turnstile jumpers and vandals.

Very quickly, they found confirmation for their theory. Going after petty crime led the police to violent criminals, says Kelling: "Not all fare beaters were criminals, but a lot of criminals were fare beaters. It turns out serious criminals are pretty busy. They commit minor offenses as well as major offenses."

The policy was quickly scaled up from the subway to the entire city of New York.

Police ramped up misdemeanor arrests for things like smoking marijuana in public, spraying graffiti and selling loose cigarettes. And almost instantly, they were able to trumpet their success. Crime was falling. The murder rate plummeted. It seemed like a miracle.

The media loved the story, and Giuliani cruised to re-election in 1997.

George Kelling and a colleague did follow-up research on broken windows policing and found what they believed was clear evidence of its success. In neighborhoods where there was a sharp increase in misdemeanor arrests — suggesting broken windows policing was in force — there was also a sharp decline in crime.

By 2001, broken windows had become one of Giuliani's greatest accomplishments. In his farewell address, he emphasized the beautiful and simple idea behind the success.

"The broken windows theory replaced the idea that we were too busy to pay attention to street-level prostitution, too busy to pay attention to panhandling, too busy to pay attention to graffiti," he said. "Well, you can't be too busy to pay attention to those things, because those are the things that underlie the problems of crime that you have in your society."

Questions Begin To Emerge About Broken Windows

Right from the start, there were signs something was wrong with the beautiful narrative.

"Crime was starting to go down in New York prior to the Giuliani election and prior to the implementation of broken windows policing," says Harcourt, the Columbia law professor. "And of course what we witnessed from that period, basically from about 1991, was that the crime in the country starts going down, and it's a remarkable drop in violent crime in this country. Now, what's so remarkable about it is how widespread it was."

Harcourt points out that crime dropped not only in New York, but in many other cities where nothing like broken windows policing was in place. In fact, crime even fell in parts of the country where police departments were mired in corruption scandals and largely viewed as dysfunctional, such as Los Angeles.

"Los Angeles is really interesting because Los Angeles was wracked with terrible policing problems during the whole time, and crime drops as much in Los Angeles as it does in New York," says Harcourt.

There were lots of theories to explain the nationwide decline in crime. Some said it was the growing economy or the end of the crack cocaine epidemic. Some criminologists credited harsher sentencing guidelines.

In 2006, Harcourt found the evidence supporting the broken windows theory might be flawed. He reviewed the study Kelling had conducted in 2001, and found the areas that saw the largest number of misdemeanor arrests also had the biggest drops in violent crime.

Harcourt says the earlier study failed to consider what's called a "reversion to the mean."

"It's something that a lot of investment bankers and investors know about because it's well-known and in the stock market," says Harcourt. "Basically, the idea is if something goes up a lot, it tends to go down a lot."

A graph in Kelling's 2001 paper is revealing. It shows the crime rate falling dramatically in the early 1990s. But this small view gives us a selective picture. Right before this decline came a spike in crime. And if you go further back, you see a series of spikes and declines. And each time, the bigger a spike, the bigger the decline that follows, as crime reverts to the mean.

Kelling acknowledges that broken windows may not have had a dramatic effect on crime. But he thinks it still has value.

"Even if broken windows did not have a substantial impact on crime, order is an end in itself in a cosmopolitan, diverse world," he says. "Strangers have to feel comfortable moving through communities for those communities to thrive. Order is an end in itself, and it doesn't need the justification of serious crime."

Order might be an end in itself, but it's worth noting that this was not the premise on which the broken windows theory was sold. It was advertised as an innovative way to control violent crime, not just a way to get panhandlers and prostitutes off the streets.

'Broken Windows' Morphs Into 'Stop And Frisk'

Harcourt says there was another big problem with broken windows.

"We immediately saw a sharp increase in complaints of police misconduct. Starting in 1993, what you're going to see is a tremendous amount of disorder that erupts as a result of broken windows policing, with complaints skyrocketing, with settlements of police misconduct cases skyrocketing, and of course with incidents, brutal incidents, all of a sudden happening at a faster and faster clip."

The problem intensified with a new practice that grew out of broken windows. It was called "stop and frisk," and was embraced in New York City after Mayor Michael Bloomberg won election in 2001.

If broken windows meant arresting people for misdemeanors in hopes of preventing more serious crimes, "stop and frisk" said, why even wait for the misdemeanor? Why not go ahead and stop, question and search anyone who looked suspicious?

There were high-profile cases where misdemeanor arrests or stopping and questioning did lead to information that helped solve much more serious crimes, even homicides. But there were many more cases where police stops turned up nothing. In 2008, police made nearly 250,000 stops in New York for what they called furtive movements. Only one-fifteenth of 1 percent of those turned up a gun.

Even more problematic, in order to be able to go after disorder, you have to be able to define it. Is it a trash bag covering a broken window? Teenagers on a street corner playing music too loudly?

In Chicago, the researchers Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush analyzed what makes people perceive social disorder . They found that if two neighborhoods had exactly the same amount of graffiti and litter and loitering, people saw more disorder, more broken windows, in neighborhoods with more African-Americans.

George Kelling is not an advocate of stop and frisk. In fact, all the way back in 1982, he foresaw the possibility that giving police wide discretion could lead to abuse. In his article, he and James Q. Wilson write: "How do we ensure ... that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry? We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question."

In August of 2013, a federal district court found that New York City's stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional because of the way it singled out young black and Hispanic men. Later that year, New York elected its first liberal mayor in 20 years. Bill DeBlasio celebrated the end of stop and frisk. But he did not do away with broken windows. In fact, he re-appointed Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner, Bill Bratton.

And just seven months after taking over again as the head of the New York Police Department, Bratton's broken windows policy came under fresh scrutiny. The reason: the death of Eric Garner.

In July 2014, a bystander caught on cellphone video the deadly clash between New York City police officers and Garner, an African-American. After a verbal confrontation, officers tackled Garner, while restraining him with a chokehold, a practice that is banned in New York City.

Garner died not long after he was brought down to the ground. His death sparked massive protests, and his name is now synonymous with the distrust between police and African-American communities.

For George Kelling, this was not the end that he had hoped for. As a researcher, he's one of the few whose ideas have left the academy and spread like wildfire.

But once politicians and the media fell in love with his idea, they took it to places that he never intended and could not control.

"When, during the 1990s, I would occasionally read in a newspaper something like a new chief comes in and says, 'I'm going to implement broken windows tomorrow,' I would listen to that with dismay because [it's] a highly discretionary activity by police that needs extensive training, formal guidelines, constant monitoring and oversight. So do I worry about the implementation about broken windows? A whole lot ... because it can be done very badly."

In fact, Kelling says, it might be time to move away from the idea.

"It's to the point now where I wonder if we should back away from the metaphor of broken windows. We didn't know how powerful it was going to be. It simplified, it was easy to communicate, a lot of people got it as a result of the metaphor. It was attractive for a long time. But as you know, metaphors can wear out and become stale."

These days, the consensus among social scientists is that broken windows likely did have modest effects on crime. But few believe it caused the 60 or 70 percent decline in violent crime for which it was once credited.

And yet despite all the evidence, the idea continues to be popular.

Bernard Harcourt says there is a reason for that:

"It's a simple story that people can latch onto and that is a lot more pleasant to live with than the complexities of life. The fact is that crime dropped in America dramatically from the 1990s, and that there aren't really good, clean nationwide explanations for it."

The story of broken windows is a story of our fascination with easy fixes and seductive theories. Once an idea like that takes hold, it's nearly impossible to get the genie back in the bottle.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain , and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Encyclopedia Britannica

The theory in practice

broken windows theory

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broken windows theory , academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime .

Broken windows theory had an enormous impact on police policy throughout the 1990s and remained influential into the 21st century. Perhaps the most notable 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 dramatic decrease in crime rates within the city during the 1990s. Bratton began translating the theory into practice as the chief of New York City’s transit police from 1990 to 1992. Squads of plainclothes officers were assigned to catch turnstile jumpers, and, as arrests for misdemeanours increased, subway crimes of all kinds decreased dramatically. In 1994, when he became New York City police commissioner, Bratton introduced his broken windows-based “quality of life initiative .” This initiative cracked down on panhandling, disorderly behaviour, public drinking , street prostitution , and unsolicited windshield washing or other such attempts to obtain cash from drivers stopped in traffic. When Bratton resigned in 1996, 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 serious crime 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 posits that the prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who are convinced that the area is unsafe. This withdrawal from the community weakens social controls that previously kept criminals in check. Once this process begins, it feeds itself. Disorder causes crime, and crime causes further disorder and crime.

Scholars generally define 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 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 often blurred, with some experts considering such acts as prostitution and drug dealing as disorder while many others classify them as crimes. While different, these two types of disorder are both thought to increase fear among citizens.

The obvious 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 policy. Earlier social disorganization theories and economic theories offered solutions that were costly and would take a long time to prove effective. Broken windows theory is seen by many as a way to effect change quickly and with minimal expense by merely altering the police crime-control strategy. It is far simpler to attack disorder than it is to attack such ominous social ills as poverty and inadequate education.

Although popular in both academic and law-enforcement circles, broken windows theory is not without its critics. One line of criticism is that there is little empirical evidence that disorder, when left unchallenged, causes crime. To validate the 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 crime. Finally, crime must be shown to increase levels of disorder.

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

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

In short, the validity of the broken windows theory is not known. It is safe to conclude that the theory does not explain everything and that, even if the theory is valid, companion theories are necessary to fully explain crime. Alternatively, a more complex model is needed to consider many more cogent factors. Almost every 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. This option is available to the middle class, who can afford to move, but not to the poor, who have fewer choices. If the middle class moves out and the poor stay, the neighbourhood will inevitably become economically disadvantaged. This suggests that the next wave of theorization about neighbourhood dynamics and crime may take an economic bent.

Moving Away from the Bias of the 'Broken Windows Theory'

broken window theory in hindi

Cleaning up a neighborhood to safeguard against crime (broken windows or rundown buildings) is one thing. But hyperfocusing on crime rates and arrests overshadows root issues that often lead to crime.

Illustration of broken window in inner city and bird symbolizing truth flying past it

The lifetime prevalence of depression in the United States is 20%, and the environment that people live in plays a huge part in that.

A 2021 review study concluded that some factors led to a significant impact on either psychological distress or depression symptoms, such as:

Can fixing what’s broken in a neighborhood really help decrease crime rates and increase mental and communal well-being?

What is broken windows theory?

This theory of broken windows was introduced in an article in 1982 by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, but the original research dates back to the late 1960s. The theory states that neighborhood neglect would likely lead to increased crime. Signs of neglect might include:

Kelling and Wilson put forth the idea that if you could decrease the lesser crimes, then you would likely see a decrease in larger crimes as well.

The most notable use of this theory in policing is in New York City in the 1990s.

Under the leadership of Rudy Giuliani, police started to focus on minor crimes as a way to clean up the city. In doing so, they found that they were also able to intercept those who committed major offenses as well.

This zero-tolerance policing strategy seemed to be successful, and the answer to the city’s problems as crime rates decreased.

“Broken windows, the way it is implemented, ignores the actual broken windows in the neighborhood and picks on the people who are just desperately trying to survive without adequate resources.” – Dr. Mindy Fullilove

On paper, it may seem logical

It may seem logical that a neglected, damaged community breeds more neglect and encourages criminals to target these areas for minor and major offenses.

Statistically, it might follow that policing these areas aggressively with a focus on those committing minor crimes often leads the police to those who have committed more serious, sometimes violent, crimes.

Broken windows theory applied to policing proposes that law enforcement is central to restoring the vitality of communities. Having these individuals off the streets may have given citizens the hope that they would feel safe again in their neighborhoods.

Some community members were persuaded that they would regain control of their environments and a sense of pride in their communities, after living in an area plagued by the chaos of:

It seemed like a win-win situation.

The red herring fallacy

A red herring fallacy refers to statements or arguments that are meant to redirect the conversation away from a particular topic by focusing on another issue with a shallow bit of relevance.

As it relates to broken windows in New York, supporters focused on bringing a sense of order back to communities in terms of crime rates and the number of arrests.

The ability of the police to protect and serve the community by minimizing obvious signs of neglect was highlighted in these conversations. These are some of the red herrings of this method of policing.

Who defines order? Who is being protected ?

A ctions based on broken windows theory were disproportionately aimed at neighborhoods with high minority populations and lower socioeconomic status. Those living in these areas saw this as racial profiling .

This was thought to contribute to an increase in police complaints and crime against citizens by the police.

The ACLU of New York reports that between 1999 and 2008, New York City paid out close to $400 million in damages to those who filed lawsuits against members of the New York Police Department.

Broken windows theory disproved?

A 2019 meta-analysis took a look at the effects of neighborhood disorder on general tendencies toward aggressive behavior and the perceptions of and attitudes toward one’s neighborhood.

They found no consistent evidence to support that environmental disorder led to:

Mental health effects of systematic oppression

The systems you live in can negatively affect your mental health. A few examples include:

A 2020 study indicates that people with mental health and substance use disorders are represented within the prison system at a disproportionate rate with up to 60% of those in jails having some sort of mental health disorder .

On the flip side, according to an older 2007 study , those who have been incarcerated previously are at increased risk of death from:

Dr. Dia Arpon , a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Wausau, Wisconsin, says that she sees people who, “without mental health and substance use treatment turn to crimes such as stealing and prostitution, [which] leads to incarceration and worse health outcomes .”

A 2019 meta-analysis states that neighborhood disorder can negatively affect:

Some say strategies to clean up a community by acting on broken windows theory misses the mark on addressing the mental health effects of the population.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove is a social psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School: Lang .

She says that “Broken windows, the way it is implemented, ignores the actual broken windows in the neighborhood and picks on the people who are just desperately trying to survive without adequate resources.”

Generational trauma

Trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. This generational trauma can be as simple as you learning behaviors and attitudes from relatives who have experienced trauma, or it can be passed to you through genetics .

As it relates to broken windows policy, Fullilove states “I think what you get is secondary traumatization. People are traumatized by the set of circumstances that are happening to their neighborhoods as a result of public policy, but they’re also traumatized by being called criminals.

“Perfectly innocent people walking down the street would get frisked , so it creates a state of constant terror.”

This type of trauma can be passed down to other generations. But there are strategies that can be used to help you deal with this constant state of terror or hypervigilance .

Institutions are reactive vs. proactive

Communities of Black and Brown people who are the focus of policing based on broken windows theory are typically in areas with limited resources. Much effort is placed on dealing with increased crime rates on the back end, but this doesn’t address the problems that lead to these statistics.

Fullilove says, “the withdrawal of public and private resources from poor neighborhoods, and forced displacement of people from many public programs has led to a rise in crime, but the source of the rise in crime was lack of jobs and [external] destruction of the neighborhood.”

Not providing proper resources but expanding the prison system is an example of being reactive to the problem instead of using restorative approaches to address the problem, Fullilove says.

She adds that broken windows theory was, in some parts, responsible for the growth of the prison system in the United States due to the increase in arrests and the need for placement.

Let’s recap

The environments people function in can play a major role in their mental health.

While certain policing strategies and policies can lead to an increase in harassment and community trauma, there are resources to help you manage any mental health symptoms that you may be experiencing.

You can check out our guide on how to find mental health support .

Last medically reviewed on September 29, 2022

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Broken Windows Theory of Criminology

Charlotte Ruhl

Marketing Associate Analyst

B.A., Psychology, Harvard University

Charlotte Ruhl is a recent Harvard College graduate with more than six years of research experience in clinical and social psychology. 

Learn about our Editorial Process

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Key Takeaways

The United States has the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. In 2016, 2.3 million people were incarcerated, despite a massive decline in both violent and property crimes (Morgan & Kena, 2019).

These statistics provide some insight into why crime regulation and mass incarceration are such hot topics today, and many scholars, lawyers, and politicians have devised theories and strategies to try to promote safety within society.

One such model is broken windows policing, which was first brought to light by American psychologist Philip Zimbardo (famous for his Stanford Prison Experiment) and further publicized by James Wilson and George Kelling. Since its inception, this theory has been both widely used and widely criticized.

What Is the Broken Windows Theory?

The broken windows theory states that any visible signs of crime and civil disorder, such as broken windows (hence, the name of the theory) vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking, and transportation fare evasion, create an urban environment that promotes even more crime and disorder (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

As such, policing these misdemeanors will help create an ordered and lawful society in which all citizens feel safe and crime rates, including violent crime rates, are low.

Broken windows policing tries to regulate low-level crime to prevent widespread disorder from occurring. If these small crimes are greatly reduced, then neighborhoods will appear to be more cared for.

The hope is that if these visible displays of disorder and neglect are reduced, violent crimes might go down too, leading to an overall reduction in crime and an increase in public safety.

Broken Windows Theory

Source: Hinkle, J. C., & Weisburd, D. (2008). The irony of broken windows policing: A micro-place study of the relationship between disorder, focused police crackdowns and fear of crime. Journal of Criminal Justice, 36(6), 503-512.

Academics justify broken windows policing from a theoretical standpoint because of three specific factors that help explain why the state of the urban environment might affect crime level:

In a typical urban environment, social norms and monitoring are not clearly known. As a result, individuals will look for certain signs and signals that provide both insight into the social norms of the area as well as the risk of getting caught violating those norms.

Those who support the broken windows theory argue that one of those signals is the area’s general appearance. In other words, an ordered environment, one that is safe and has very little lawlessness, sends the message that this neighborhood is routinely monitored and criminal acts are not tolerated.

On the other hand, a disordered environment, one that is not as safe and contains visible acts of lawlessness (such as broken windows, graffiti, and litter), sends the message that this neighborhood is not routinely monitored and individuals would be much more likely to get away with committing a crime.

With a decreased likelihood of detection, individuals would be much more inclined to engage in criminal behavior, both violent and nonviolent, in this type of area.

As you might be able to tell, a major assumption that this theory makes is that an environment’s landscape communicates to its residents in some way.

Broken Windows Theory

For example, proponents of this theory would argue that a broken window signals to potential criminals that a community is unable to defend itself against an uptick in criminal activity. It is not the literal broken window that is direct cause for concern, but more so the figurative meaning that is ascribed to this situation.

It symbolizes a vulnerable and disjointed community that is not capable of handling crime – opening the doors to all kids of unwanted activity to occur.

In neighborhoods that do have a strong sense of social cohesion among its residents, these broken windows are fixed (both literally and figuratively), giving these areas a sense of control over their communities.

By fixing these windows, undesired individuals and behaviors are removed, allowing civilians to feel safer (Herbert & Brown, 2006).

However, in environments in which these broken windows are left unfixed, residents no longer see their communities as tight-knit, safe spaces, and will avoid spending time in communal spaces (in parks, at local stores, on the street blocks) so as to avoid violent attacks from strangers.

Additionally, when these broken windows are not fixed, it also symbolizes a lack of informal social control. Informal social control refers to the actions that regulate behavior, such as conforming to social norms and intervening as a bystander when a crime is committed, that are independent of the law.

Informal social control is important to help reduce unruly behavior. Scholars argue that, under certain circumstances, informal social control is more effective than laws.

And some will even go so far as to say that nonresidential spaces, such as corner stores and businesses, have a responsibility to actually maintain this informal social control by way of constant surveillance and supervision.

One such scholar is Jane Jacobs, a Canadian-American author and journalist, who believed sidewalks were a crucial vehicle for promoting public safety.

Jacobs can be considered one of the original pioneers of the broken windows theory. One of her most famous books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes how local businesses and stores provide a necessary sense of having “eyes on the street” which promotes safety and helps to regulate crime (Jacobs, 1961).

Although the idea that community involvement, from both residents and nonresidents, can make a big difference in how safe a neighborhood is perceived to be, Wilson and Keeling argue that the police are the key to maintaining order.

As major proponents of broken windows policing, they hold that formal social control, in addition to informal social control, is crucial for actually regulating crime. Although different people have different approaches to the implementation of broken windows (i.e., cleaning up the environment and informal social control vs. an increase in policing misdemeanor crimes), the end goal is the same: crime reduction.

This idea, which largely serves as the backbone to the broken windows theory, was first introduced by Philip Zimbardo.

examples of Broken Windows Policing

1969: philip zimbardo’s introduction of broken windows in nyc and la.

In 1969, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo ran a social experiment in which he abandoned two cars that had no license plates and the hoods up in very different locations.

The first was a predominantly poor, high-crime neighborhood in the Bronx, and the second was a fairly affluent area of Palo Alto, California. He then observed two very different outcomes.


After just ten minutes, the car in the Bronx was attacked and vandalized. A family first approached the vehicle and removed the radiator and battery. Within the first twenty-four hours after Zimbardo left the car, everything valuable had been stripped and removed from the car.

Afterwards, random acts of destruction began – the windows were smashed, seats were ripped up, and the car began to serve as a playground for children in the community.

On the contrary, the car that was left in Palo Alto remained untouched for more than a week before Zimbardo eventually went up to it and smashed the vehicle with a sledgehammer.

Only after he had done this did other people join the destruction of the car (Zimbardo, 1969). Zimbardo concluded that something that is clearly abandoned and neglected can become a target for vandalism.

But Kelling and Wilson extended this finding when they introduced the concept of broken windows policing in the early 1980s. This initial study cascaded into a body of research and policy that demonstrated how in areas such as the Bronx, where theft, destruction, and abandonment are more common, vandalism will occur much faster because there are no opposing forces to this type of behavior.

As a result, such forces, primarily the police, are needed to intervene and reduce these types of behavior and remove such indicators of disorder.

1982: Kelling and Wilson’s Follow-Up Article

Thirteen years after Zimbardo’s study was published, criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson published an article in The Atlantic that applied Zimbardo’s findings to entire communities.

Kelling argues that Zimbardo’s findings were not unique to the areas of the Bronx and Palo Alto. Rather, he claims that regardless of the neighborhood, once disorder begins, a ripple effect can occur as things get extremely out of hand and control becomes increasingly hard to maintain.

The article introduces the broader idea that now lies at the heart of the broken windows theory: a broken window, or other signs of disorder, such as loitering, graffiti, litter, or drug use, can send the message that a neighborhood is uncared for, sending an open invitation for crime to continue to occur, even violent crimes.

The solution, according to Kelling and Wilson and many other proponents of this theory, is to target these very low level crimes, restore order to the neighborhood, and prevent more violent crimes from happening.

A strengthened and ordered community is equipped to fight and deter crime (because a sense of order creates the perception that crimes go easily detected). As such, it is necessary for police departments to focus on cleaning up the streets as opposed to putting all of their energy into fighting high-level crimes.

In addition to Zimbardo’s 1969 study, Kelling and Wilson’s article was also largely inspired by New Jersey’s “Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program” that was implemented in the mid-1970s.

As part of the program, police officers were taken out of their patrol cars and were asked to patrol on foot. The aim of this approach was to make citizens feel more secure in their neighborhoods.

Although crime was not reduced as a result, residents took fewer steps to protect themselves from crime (such as locking their doors). Reducing fear is a huge goal of broken windows policing.

As Kelling and Wilson state in their article, the fear of being bothered by disorderly people (such as drunks, rowdy teens, or loiterers) is enough to motivate them to withdraw from the community.

But if we can find a way to make people feel less fear (namely by reducing low level crimes), then they will be more involved in their communities, creating a higher degree of informal social control and deterring all forms of criminal activity.

Although Kelling and Wilson’s article was largely theoretical, the practice of broken windows policing was implemented in the early 1990s under New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. And Kelling himself was there to play a crucial role.

Early 1990s: Bratton and Giuliani’s implementation in NYC

In 1985, the New York City Transit Authority hired George Kelling as a consultant, and he was also later hired by both the Boston and Los Angeles police departments to provide advice on the most effective method for policing (Fagan & Davies, 2000).

  Giulian Broken Window Theory NYC

Five years later, in 1990, William J. Bratton became the head of the New York City Transit Police. In his role, Bratton cracked down on fare evasion and implemented faster methods to process those who were arrested.

He attributed a lot of his decisions as head of the transit police to Kelling’s work. Bratton was just the first to begin to implement such measures, but once Rudy Giuliani was elected as mayor in 1993, tactics to reduce crime began to really take off (Vedantam et al., 2016).

Together, Giuliani and Bratton first focused on cleaning up the subway system, where Bratton’s area of expertise lay. They sent hundreds of police officers into subway stations throughout the city to catch anyone who was jumping the turnstiles and evading the fair.

And this was just the beginning. All throughout the 90s, Giuliani increased misdemeanor arrests in all pockets of the city. They arrested numerous people for smoking marijuana in public, spraying graffiti on walls, selling cigarettes, and they shut down many of the city’s night spots for illegal dancing.

Conveniently, during this time, crime was also falling in the city and the murder rate was rapidly decreasing, earning Giuliani re-election in 1997 (Vedantam et al., 2016).

To further support the outpouring success of this new approach to regulating crime, George Kelling ran a follow up study on the efficacy of broken windows policing and found that in neighborhoods where there was a stark increase in misdemeanor arrests (evidence of broken windows policing), there was also a sharp decline in crime (Kelling & Sousa, 2001). Because this seemed like an incredibly successful mode, cities around the world began to adopt this approach.

Late 1990s: Albuquerque’s Safe Streets Program

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Safe Streets Program was implemented to deter and reduce unsafe driving and crime rates by increasing surveillance in these areas. Specifically, the traffic enforcement program influenced saturation patrols (that operated over a large geographic area), sobriety checkpoints, follow-up patrols, and freeway speed enforcement.

Albuquerque’s Safe Streets Program

The effectiveness of this program was analyzed in a study done by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (Stuser, 2001). Result demonstrated that both Part I crimes, including homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and theft, and Part II crimes, such as sex offenses, kidnapping, stolen property, and fraud, experienced a total decline of 5% during the 1996-1997 calendar year in which this program was implemented.

Additionally, this program resulted in a 9% decline in both robbery and burglary, a 10% decline in assault, a 17% decline in kidnapping, a 29% decline in homicide, and a 36% decline in arson.

With these promising statistics came a 14% increase in arrests. Thus, the researchers concluded that traffic enforcement programs can deter criminal activity. This approach was initially inspired by both Zimbardo’s and Kelling and Wilson’s work on broken windows and provides evidence that when policing and surveillance increase, crime rates go down.

2005: Lowell, Massachusetts

Back on the east coast, Harvard University and Suffolk University researchers worked with local police officers to pinpoint 34 different crime hotspots in Lowell, Massachusetts. In half of these areas, local police officers and authorities cleaned up trash from the streets, fixed streetlights, expanded aid for the homeless, and made more misdemeanor arrests.

There was no change made in the other half of the areas (Johnson, 2009).

The researchers found that in areas in which police service was changed, there was a 20% reduction in calls to the police. And because the researchers implemented different ways of changing the city’s landscape, from cleaning the physical environment to increasing arrests, they were able to compare the effectiveness of these various approaches.

Although many proponents of the broken windows theory argue that increasing policing and arrests is the solution to reducing crime, as the previous study in Albuquerque illustrates. Others insist that more arrests do not solve the problem but rather changing the physical landscape should be the desired a means to an end.

And this is exactly what Brenda Bond of Suffolk University and Anthony Braga of Harvard Kennedy’s School of Government found. Cleaning up the physical environment was revealed to be very effective, misdemeanor arrests were less so, and increasing social services had no impact.

This study provided strong evidence for the effectiveness of the broken windows theory in reducing crime by decreasing disorder, specifically in the context of cleaning up the physical and visible neighborhood (Braga & Bond, 2008).

2007: Netherlands

The United States is not the only country that sought to implement the broken windows ideology. Beginning in 2007, researchers from the University of Groningen ran several studies that looked at whether existing visible disorder increased crimes such as theft and littering.

Similar to the Lowell experiment, where half of the areas were ordered and the other half disorders, Keizer and colleagues arranged several urban areas in two different ways at two different times. In one condition, the area was ordered, with an absence of graffiti and littering, but in the other condition, there was visible evidence for disorder.

The team found that in the disorderly environments, people were much more likely to litter, take shortcuts through a fenced off area, and to take an envelope out of an open mailbox that was clearly labeled to contain five Euros (Keizer et al., 2008).

This study provides additional support for the effect perceived order can have on the likelihood of criminal activity. But this broken windows theory is not restricted to the criminal legal setting.

Other Domains Relevant to Broken Windows

There are several other fields in which the broken windows theory is implicated. The first is real estate. Broken windows (and other similar signs of disorder) can be an indicator of low real estate value, thus deterring investors (Hunt, 2015).

As such, some recommend that the real estate industry should adopt the broken windows theory in an attempt to increase value in an apartment, house, or even an entire neighborhood. By fixing windows and cleaning up the area, they might increase in value (Harcourt & Ludwig, 2006).

Consequently, this might lead to gentrification – the process by which poorer urban landscapes are changed as wealthier individuals move in. Although many would argue that this might help the economy and provide a safe area for people to live, this often displaces low-income families and prevents them from moving into areas that they would previously be able to afford.

This is a very salient topic in the United States as many areas are becoming gentrified, and regardless of whether you support this process, it is important to understand how the real estate industry is directly connected to the broken windows theory.

Another area that broken windows are related to is education. Here, the broken windows theory is used to promote order in the classroom. In this setting, the students replace those who engage in criminal activity. The idea is that students are signaled by disorder or others breaking classroom rules and take this as an open invitation to further contribute to the disorder.

As such, many schools rely on strict regulations such as punishing curse words and speaking out of turn, forcing strict dress and behavioral codes, and enforcing a specific classroom etiquette.

Similar to the previous studies, from 2004 to 2006, Stephen Plank and colleagues conducted a study that measured the relationship between physical appearance of mid-Atlantic schools and student behavior.

They determined that variables such as fear, social order, and informal social control were statistically significantly associated with the physical conditions of the school setting.

Thus, the researchers urged educators to tend to the physical appearance of the school to help promote a productive classroom environment, one in which students are less likely to propagate disordered behavior (Plank et al., 2009).

Despite there being a large body of research that seems to support the broken windows theory, this theory does not come without its stark criticisms, especially in the past few years.

Major Criticisms

At the turn of the 21st century, the rhetoric surrounding broken windows drastically shifted from praise to criticism. Scholars scrutinized conclusions that were drawn, questioned empirical methodologies, and feared that this theory was morphing into a vehicle for discrimination.

Misinterpreting the Relationship Between Disorder and Crime

A major criticism of this theory argues that it misinterprets the relationship between disorder and crime by drawing a causal chain between the two.

Instead, some researchers argue that a third factor, collective efficacy, or the cohesion among residents combined with shared expectations for the social control of public space, is the actual causal agent that explains crime rates (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999).

A 2019 meta-analysis that looked at 300 studies revealed that disorder in a neighborhood does not directly cause its residents to commit more crime (O’Brien et al., 2019).

The researchers examined studies that tested to what extent disorder led people to commit crimes, made them feel more fearful of crime in their neighborhoods, and affected their perceptions of their neighborhoods.

In addition to drawing out several methodological flaws in the hundreds of studies that were included in the analysis, O’Brien and colleagues found no evidence that the disorder and crime are causally linked.

Similarly, in 2003, David Thatcher published a paper in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology arguing that broken windows policing was not as effective as it appeared to be on the surface.

Crime rates dropping in areas such as New York City were not a direct result of this new law enforcement tactic. Those who believed this were simply conflating correlation and causality.

Rather, Thatcher claims, lower crime rates were the result of various other factors, none of which fell into the category of ramping up misdemeanor arrests (Thatcher, 2003).

In terms of the specific factors that were actually playing a role in the decrease in crime, some scholars point to the waning of the cocaine epidemic and strict enforcement of the Rockefeller drug laws that contributed to lower crime rates (Metcalf, 2006).

Other explanations include trends such as New York City’s economic boom in the late 1990s that helped directly contribute to the decrease of crime much more so than enacting the broken windows policy (Sridhar, 2006).

Additionally, cities that did not implement broken windows also saw a decrease in crime (Harcourt, 2009), and similarly, crime rates weren’t decreasing in other cities that adopted the broken windows policy (Sridhar, 2006).

Specifically, Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig examined the Department of Housing and Urban Development program that placed inner-city project residents into housing in more orderly neighborhoods.

Contrary to the broken windows theory, which would predict that these tenants would now commit fewer crimes once relocated into more ordered neighborhoods, they found that these individuals continued to commit crimes at the same rate.

This study provides clear evidence why broken windows may not be the causal agent in crime reduction (Harcourt & Ludwig, 2006).

Falsely Assuming Why Crimes Are Committed

The broken windows theory also assumes that in more orderly neighborhoods, there is more informal social control. As a result, people understand that there is a greater likelihood that they might be caught committing a crime, and so they shy away from engaging in such activity.

However, people don’t only commit crimes because of the perceived likelihood of detection. Rather, many individuals who commit crimes do so because of factors completely unrelated to or without any consideration of the repercussions.

Poverty, social pressure, mental illness, and more are often driving factors that help explain why a person might commit a crime, especially a misdemeanor such as theft or loitering.

Resulting in Racial and Class Bias

One of the leading criticisms of the broken windows theory is that it leads to both racial and class bias. By giving the police broad discretion to define disorder and determine who engages in disorderly acts allows them to freely criminalize communities of color and groups that are socioeconomically disadvantaged (Roberts, 1998).

For example, Sampson and Raudenbush found that in two neighborhoods with equal amounts of graffiti and litter, people saw more disorder in neighborhoods with more African Americans.

The researchers found that individuals associate African Americans and other minority groups with concepts of crime and disorder more so than their white counterparts (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004).

This can lead to unfair policing in areas that are predominantly people of color. In addition, those who suffer from financial instability and may be of minority status are more likely to commit crimes in the first place.

Thus, they are simply being punished for being poor as opposed to being given resources to assist them. Further, many acts that are actually legal but are deemed disorderly by police officers are targeted in public settings but aren’t targeted when the same acts are conducted in private settings.

As a result, those who don’t have access to private spaces, such as homeless people, are unnecessarily criminalized.

It follows then that by policing these small misdemeanors, or oftentimes actions that aren’t even crimes at all, police departments are fighting poverty crimes as opposed to fighting to provide individuals with the resources that will make crime no longer a necessity.

Morphing into Stop and Frisk

Stop and frisk, a brief non-intrusive police stop of a suspect, is an extremely controversial approach to policing. But critics of the broken windows theory argue that it has morphed into this program.

With broken-windows policing, officers have too much discretion when determining who is engaging in criminal activity and will search people for drugs and weapons without probable cause.

However, this method is highly unsuccessful. In 2008, the police made nearly 250,000 stops in New York, but only one-fifteenth of one percent of those stops resulted in finding a gun (Vedantam et al., 2016).

And three years later, in 2011, more than 685,000 people were stopped in New York. Of those nine out of ten were found to be completely innocent (Dunn & Shames, 2020).

Thus, not only does this give officers free reins to stop and frisk minority populations at disproportionately high levels, but it also is not effective in drawing out crime.

Although broken windows policing might seem effective from a theoretical perspective, major valid criticisms put the practical application of this theory into question.

Given its controversial nature, broken windows policing is not explicitly used today as a way of regulating crime in most major cities. However, there are still traces of this theory that remain.

Cities such as Ferguson, Missouri are heavily policed and the city issues thousands of warrants a year on broken window types of crimes – from parking infractions to traffic violations.

And the racial and class biases that result from such an approach to law enforcement have definitely not disappeared.

Crime regulation is not an easy feat, but the broken windows theory provides an approach to reducing offenses and maintaining order in society.

About the Author

Charlotte Ruhl is a member of the Class of 2022 at Harvard University. She studies Psychology with a minor in African American Studies. On campus, Charlotte works at an implicit social cognition research lab, is an editor for the undergraduate law review, and plays softball.

How to reference this article:

Ruhl, C. (2021, July 26). The broken windows theory . Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Braga, A. A., & Bond, B. J. (2008). Policing crime and disorder hot spots: A randomized controlled trial. Criminology, 46(3), 577-607.

Dunn, C., & Shames, M. (2020). Stop-and-Frisk data . Retrieved from

Fagan, J., & Davies, G. (2000). Street stops and broken windows: Terry, race, and disorder in New York City. Fordham Urb. LJ , 28, 457.

Harcourt, B. E. (2009). Illusion of order: The false promise of broken windows policing . Harvard University Press.

Harcourt, B. E., & Ludwig, J. (2006). Broken windows: New evidence from New York City and a five-city social experiment. U. Chi. L. Rev., 73 , 271.

Herbert, S., & Brown, E. (2006). Conceptions of space and crime in the punitive neoliberal city. Antipode, 38 (4), 755-777.

Hunt, B. (2015). “Broken Windows” theory can be applied to real estate regulation- Realty Times. Retrieved from

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities . Vintage.

Johnson, C. Y. (2009). Breakthrough on “broken windows.” Boston Globe.

Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2008). The spreading of disorder. Science, 322 (5908), 1681-1685.

Kelling, G. L., & Sousa, W. H. (2001). Do police matter?: An analysis of the impact of new york city’s police reforms . CCI Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute.

Metcalf, S. (2006). Rudy Giuliani, American president? Retrieved from

Morgan, R. E., & Kena, G. (2019). Criminal victimization, 2018. Bureau of Justice Statistics , 253043.

O”Brien, D. T., Farrell, C., & Welsh, B. C. (2019). Looking through broken windows: The impact of neighborhood disorder on aggression and fear of crime is an artifact of research design. Annual Review of Criminology, 2 , 53-71.

Plank, S. B., Bradshaw, C. P., & Young, H. (2009). An application of “broken-windows” and related theories to the study of disorder, fear, and collective efficacy in schools. American Journal of Education, 115 (2), 227-247.

Roberts, D. E. (1998). Race, vagueness, and the social meaning of order-maintenance policing. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 89 , 775.

Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (1999). Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods. American journal of sociology, 105 (3), 603-651.

Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (2004). Seeing disorder: Neighborhood stigma and the social construction of “broken windows”. Social psychology quarterly, 67 (4), 319-342.

Sridhar, C. R. (2006). Broken windows and zero tolerance: Policing urban crimes. Economic and Political Weekly , 1841-1843.

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Further Information

Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic monthly, 249(3), 29-38.

Fagan, J., & Davies, G. (2000). Street stops and broken windows: Terry, race, and disorder in New York City. Fordham Urb. LJ, 28, 457.

Fagan, J. A., Geller, A., Davies, G., & West, V. (2010). Street stops and broken windows revisited. In Race, ethnicity, and policing (pp. 309-348). New York University Press.

Northeastern University researchers find little evidence for ‘broken windows theory,’ say neighborhood disorder doesn’t cause crime

broken window theory in hindi

More than 35 years ago, researchers theorized that graffiti, abandoned buildings, panhandling, and other signs of disorder in neighborhoods create an environment that leads people to commit more crime.

In the “broken windows theory,” as it has come to be known, such characteristics convey the message that these places aren’t monitored and crime will go unpunished. The theory has led police to crack down on minor crimes with the idea that this will prevent more serious crimes, and inspired research on how disorder affects people’s health.

Now, Northeastern researchers say they have debunked the “broken windows theory.” In research published in the Annual Review of Criminology and in Social Science & Medicine , they have found that disorder in a neighborhood doesn’t cause people to break the law, commit more crimes, have a lower opinion of their neighborhoods, or participate in dangerous or unhealthy behavior.

“The body of evidence for the broken windows theory does not stand, in terms of how disorder impacts individuals,” said Daniel T. O’Brien , associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern.

The methodology behind the findings

O’Brien and his research colleagues— Brandon Welsh , a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern, and doctoral student Chelsea Farrell—conducted two studies. One, published in Annual Review of Criminology, focused on whether disorder affects crime. The other, published in Social Science & Medicine , focused on the impact of disorder on public health.

O’Brien outlined the findings of both studies in an article published in April by the Scholars Strategy Network , an organization that connects journalists, policymakers, and civic leaders with researchers.

New research from Brandon Welsh, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern, follows up on the long-term effects of a program launched 70 years ago to prevent crime among young people living in urban areas. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Northeastern University researchers follow up on 80-year-old study of crime prevention program that made a shocking discovery

They wanted to see if the “broken windows theory” holds up. They sought answers to two questions: Does disorder cause crime, and does it have an impact on public health?

The researchers discovered that disorder in a neighborhood does not cause its residents to commit more crime. They found “no consistent evidence that disorder induces higher levels of aggression or makes residents feel more negative toward the neighborhood,” they wrote in their paper in the Annual Review of Criminology .

They also did not find that these signs of physical and social disrepair discourage people from exercising outside or encourage people to engage in unprotected sex.

However, the researchers did find a connection between disorder and mental health. They found that people who live in neighborhoods with more graffiti, abandoned buildings, and other such attributes experience more mental health problems and are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. But they say that this greater likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol is associated with mental health, and is not directly caused by disorder.

The “broken windows theory” was developed by criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson, who wrote a 7,000-word article in The Atlantic in 1982 in which they argued that maintaining order and preventing crime go hand in hand. Kelling died on May 15 at the age of 83 .

O’Brien and his colleagues used a procedure called meta-analysis to conduct their research. This means that they searched online research databases to find studies to include in their research, tested and recorded the results of each study, and pooled all those results together in order to draw a conclusion about the “broken windows theory.”

The researchers analyzed nearly 300 studies that examined the effects of at least one element of neighborhood disorder (say, graffiti or public drunkenness) on at least one outcome at the individual level (say, committing a violent crime or using drugs).

They then tested the effect that disorder was found to have on residents in each study. In the crime study, they tested to what extent disorder led people to commit crime, made them more fearful of crime in their neighborhoods, and affected their perceptions of their neighborhoods. In the health study, they tested whether disorder affected whether people exercised outdoors, experienced mental health problems, or engaged in risky behavior, including abusing drugs and alcohol or having unprotected sex.

O’Brien says that his team took into account the research methods used in each study in order to assess whether its design led researchers to find more evidence for the “broken windows theory” than there actually was.

broken window theory in hindi

Dan O’Brien. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The Northeastern researchers say that they found two widespread flaws in how past studies that found evidence for the broken windows theory were designed. These flaws, they say, led to conclusions that overstated the impact that elements of neighborhood disorder had on crime and health.

The first flaw, they say, is that many studies didn’t account for important variables, including the income levels of households in the neighborhoods that were analyzed. O’Brien says that past research has found that the more poverty there is in a neighborhood, the more crime and disorder occurs there. His team’s meta-analysis revealed that the studies that didn’t account for socio-economic status found a stronger connection between disorder and crime than those that did account for the income levels of residents.

The second flaw, the say, relates to how researchers measured the levels of disorder in neighborhoods. O’Brien says that many studies evaluated disorder by surveying residents who were asked to assess how well their neighborhoods are maintained and either whether they worried about crime or suffered from mental health problems.

O’Brien says that the results of these surveys can be unreliable because people’s perception of the disorder in their neighborhoods may be intertwined with their assessments of crime as well as how they describe their own mental or physical health. The studies in which residents were asked both of these questions yielded the strongest evidence in favor of the broken windows theory. But studies in which researchers visited the neighborhoods and observed signs of disorder for themselves found less evidence to support the theory.

‘There are other ways to think about disorder’

O’Brien says that his team’s findings have significant implications. He says that policing and public health strategies shouldn’t be based on the idea that disorder causes people to break the law or participate in dangerous or unhealthy behavior.

But he also says that disorder, if studied in a more precise way, can provide valuable insight into what’s happening in neighborhoods and inform public policy.

“There are other ways to think about disorder,” says O’Brien, who co-directs the Boston Area Research Initiative , which is based at Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “It’s not to say we should look at neighborhoods and say, ‘You know, graffiti and abandoned buildings don’t matter.’ It’s that they matter, but they didn’t matter in a way that the broken windows theory claims that they do.”

For media inquiries , please contact Shannon Nargi at [email protected]

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    The broken windows theory of policing suggested that cleaning up the visible signs of disorder — like graffiti, loitering, panhandling and prostitution — would prevent more serious crime as well.

  4. Broken windows theory | Description & Results | Britannica

    broken windows theory, academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.

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    The Broken Windows theory, first studied by Philip Zimbardo and introduced by George Kelling and James Wilson, holds that visible indicators of disorder, such as vandalism, loitering, and broken windows, invite criminal activity and should be prosecuted as a result.

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  8. broken windows theory in Hindi - English-Hindi Dictionary ...

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