Broken Windows Theory

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Writing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Adam McKee (reference below) describes Broken Windows Theory as the “academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods [and which] links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.”

McKee writes:

“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.”

But McKee notes that:

“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.”

Indeed, in a 2016 episode of NPR’s psychological science show, Hidden Brain, entitled “How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong,” Shankar Vedantam says:

“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.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Evaluation and the Policy Cycle (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.


Adam J. McKee, Broken Windows Theory, Encyclopedia Britannica. at, accessed 3 December 2018.

Shankar Vedantam, Chris Benderev, Tara Boyle, et al. “How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong.” NPR. November 1, 2016,, accessed 3 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified 3 December 2018.

Image: Russell James, CPTED: Designing Violence out of Schools, LinkedIn SlideShare, at, accessed 3 December 2018.