The “Broken Windows” Strategy in Law Enforcement

The “Broken Windows” Strategy in Law Enforcement


The proposition that maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent not only low-level vandalism, but also the commission of more serious crimes, has been widely accepted since social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the theory in their famous article, titled “Broken Windows,” which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The authors wrote:

“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

“Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by ‘vandals’ within ten minutes of its ‘abandonment.’ The first to arrive were a family—father, mother, and young son—who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began—windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult ‘vandals’ were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the ‘vandals’ appeared to be primarily respectable whites.”

The Wilson-Kelling article received a great deal of attention and was widely cited. In 1996, Kelling collaborated with Catharine Coles to co-author Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities, a criminology and urban sociology book that developed the original article’s argument in greater detail. The authors emphasized that it is vital to fix problems when they are small; i.e., if broken windows are repaired within a short time, vandals are much less likely to do any further damage. Similarly, if a sidewalk is cleaned every day, the subsequent incidence of littering there will be much less than it otherwise would have been. The theory suggests not only that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, but also that major crime will consequently be prevented.

William J. Bratton, who described George Kelling as his “intellectual mentor,” famously implemented the “broken windows” theory with great success during his tenures as police chief in New York (during the 1990s) and Los Angeles (in the 2000s). In New York, Bratton instructed police to more strictly enforce existing laws against such relatively minor infractions as subway-fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, and shakedown operations by “squeegee men” demanding payment in exchange for their unsolicited wiping of the windshields on cars stopped at red lights. As a result of these and other, similar, law-enforcement practices, the rates of both petty and serious crimes in New York City fell suddenly and dramatically.

Additional Resources:

Broken Windows
By George Kelling and James Q. Wilson
March 1982

Emptying NY Prisons
By Heather Mac Donald
March 12, 2013

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