Broken Windows Theory

In 1969 the Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo reported on an experiment he conducted in which two comparable cars were left on the city streets of The Bronx in New York City and Palo Alto, California. The Bronx car had no license plates and its hood up. Within a short time vandals ransacked the car for valuables and over time destroyed it. Meanwhile, the Palo Alto car remained untouched until Zimbardo destroyed parts of it, and only then did vandals and passersby ransack and then destroy it. In both neighborhoods the vandals were observed to be well dressed and white.

“Broken windows” is the theory from this and similar experiments that abandoned or untended property is an invitation to vandalize the property because its owners no longer care what happens to it. This theory has been extended to neighborhoods in which abandoned buildings invite vandalism, again, because no one cares. The consequence is a downward spiral of neighborhood deterioration in which owners abandon other buildings, vandalism spreads, community order breaks down, and the streets are occupied by disorderly elements such as gangs, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Violent crime is not necessarily an immediate result of community disorder, but disorderliness may reach a level of lawlessness that increases the neighborhood's vulnerability to violent crime.

In 1982 George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson popularized this theory in an article titled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Kelling and Wilson were both criminologists, and their attention naturally turned to the role of the police in neighborhoods plagued by disorder and violence. But there was the rub. Should the police focus on community order or violent crime? Historically, the traditional role of the police was that of the night watchman responsible for the maintenance of order. Police patrolled the streets on foot, provided the physical presence of the law, rousted troublemakers, and kept the streets clear of riffraff. As urban violence increased, the police gradually became more involved in their secondary role of crime solvers, and they were assigned on that basis either to patrol neighborhoods with high crime rates or to respond to calls for help.

Kelling and Wilson advocated a renewed emphasis on the role of the police in maintaining community order while not ignoring criminal apprehension and responding to calls. They argued that police departments should assign police to marginal neighborhoods with high vulnerability to criminal invasion where police patrols could do the most good in reversing disorder and reclaiming a sense of community. They recommended the use of foot patrols, and they urged police to relentlessly maintain order even on the buses, subways, and trains they ride to and from duty. Community support is essential; but uniformed city police should patrol the streets, should be adequately trained to do so, and should be evaluated on their success in doing so. “Above all,” the authors conclude, “we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals…. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows” ( 1982, 10 ).

New York City famously implemented the broken windows theory first in policing its mass-transit system and then citywide beginning in 1993 under the leadership of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. Their policy called for “zero tolerance” of disorderly conduct and small crimes, from public drunkenness to graffiti, on the grounds that such crimes helped create an environment of neighborhood deterioration and disorder within which larger crimes and violence could flourish. To hold commanders accountable for crime trends in their precincts, the city also put in place the Compstat research and evaluation process, which entails continuous monitoring of locally collected crime data and mapping.

Minor and major crimes rates in New York City steadily declined over a sustained period of time. Commissioner Bratton credited the success of the broken windows theory. The zero-tolerance policy toward public disorder quickly spread to other cities, where crime rates also went down. Bratton helped that diffusion process as head of the Boston and then Los Angeles police departments before returning in 2013 to his position as New York City police commissioner.

Community theories like broken windows require a delicate balance when put into police practice. To work well, community members and police must function as partners engaged in a common pursuit of maintaining or restoring community health. Safe streets and safe public spaces are important goals, but how those goals are pursued matters. One great danger of the broken windows policy is that the police may become too aggressive in their pursuit of community order and less discriminate in whom they stop and question, especially in communities in which the police are predominantly white and the community predominantly black. When police widen their sweeps, community perceptions of police behavior can turn from maintaining order in the community to harassment. This can create a downward spiral of disrespect and distrust on both sides ( Anderson 2014 ). Another danger is that the broken windows theory overemphasizes the police role in maintaining order and punishing minor crimes while too many major violent crimes go unsolved ( Leovy 2015 ).

SEE ALSO Code of the Street .


Anderson, Elijah. “What Caused the Ferguson Riot Exists in So Many Other Cities, Too.” Washington Post, August 13, 2014. .

Bratton, William, and George L. Kelling. “The Assault on ‘Broken Windows’ Policing.” Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2014. .

Kelling, George L., and James Q. Wilson. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” The Atlantic, March 1, 1982, 1–10. .

Leovy, Jill. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015.

Stephen Schechter
Russell Sage College