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The Broken Windows Theory

By Charlotte Ruhl, published July 26, 2021

Take-home Messages
  • 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.
  • This form of policing has been tested in several real-world settings. It was heavily enforced in the mid 1990s under New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Netherlands later experimented with this theory.
  • Although initial research proved to be promising, this theory has been met with several criticisms. Specifically, many scholars point to the fact that there is no clear causal relationship between lack of order and crime. Rather, crime going down when order goes up is merely a coincidental correlation.
  • Additionally, this theory has opened the doors for racial and class bias, especially in the form of stop and frisk.

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:

  1. social norms and conformity;
  2. the presence or lack of routine monitoring;
  3. social signaling and signal crime.

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.

An Empirical Timeline of this Theory: 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 means to the 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 is 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 for 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.

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