Is there anything to be gained from Broken Windows Policing?

Broken Windows policing is the theory that you can maintain order by cracking down on low level crime and you can also prevent more serious crime.

The term came from George Kelling and James Wilson, who used the example that a broken window left how it is would signal indifference and more crime would escalate from that. The conceptual idea makes some sense. It follows that high level criminals would start with more minor crimes before they feel comfortable moving on to more serious ones. I think that if you try to be tougher on lower level crimes, you start to be inequitable in the punishment of those crimes and instead of preventing serious crime, you’ll instead foster serious crime because people will feel they’ve been wronged by an injustice.

The idea can be tied in with the concept of Community Policing. As I discussed in one of my previous blogs, community policing is a concept and movement for police to be more active within their communities and build relationships with their citizens in order to prevent crime. The concepts relate because ideally, if officers were more involved in their communities, there would be less minor crimes and therefore less “broken windows” leading to more serious offenses.

The thing is, there isn’t much empirical data for the merit of broken windows policing. In all honesty, I think that if people want to commit a particular crime, minor or serious, they will do it. Regardless if police are cracking down or not. It’s essentially a cost/benefit analysis. If they perceive the benefits to outweigh the costs, then we’ll have a new criminal. Plain and simple.

Back to empirical data: A study published in 2006 by Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig on the subject found that there is no support for the theories of Kelling and Wilson. They conducted a study called Moving to Opportunity in which they randomly assigned housing vouchers to about 4, 600 low income families in five cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Boston) living in public, high crime areas to move to less disadvantaged and disorderly communities. They said in their study:

“Taken together, the evidence from New York City and from the five-city social experiment provides no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship as hypothesized by Wilson and Kelling, nor for the proposition that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.”

Another aspect of broken windows is who is going be targeted if this method of policing is implemented into a community. Police will not ordinarily go into a wealthy neighborhood looking for people committing these low level crimes. They will go, not surprisingly, into low income communities and target minorities. Whether they are conscious of this or not, that’s what will happen. Here is an excellent video by Elite Daily this and other aspects of Broken Windows policing:

I believe the most important part of the video is from 0:50-4:00 but you can watch more if you’d like. However, A quote from the video that struck me is at 6:43 a man says this:

“You can’t help but feel cynical about all this (expletive), because why should I respect this law, why should I respect any of these laws? They’re not even enforced fairly.”

Broken Windows is depicted in that video to be very racially biased.  Part of the reason it is racially biased is because of the aspects I earlier mentioned about the demographics that it targets.  The concept itself can’t help that, it’s just how it is designed. That’s why it needs to be done away with everywhere. Broken Windows is not something that is going to reduce serious crime, it is not something that is going to help anyone, it is not something that is going to help our society.

I believe that, ultimately, Broken Windows is something that can hurt our police force. This is just another way that our people become more wary and more distrustful of the police. My peer, Austin DeTray posted a blog about the declining law enforcement population. That could be because of the negative stigma that our society has grown to have regarding our law enforcement officers: the people who are supposed to protect and serve the community. Our community.

What do you think of Broken Windows policing? Is there any real merit to it?

  • Jair Oglivie

6 thoughts on “Is there anything to be gained from Broken Windows Policing?

  1. Hey Jair!

    I really enjoyed your article, especially the video! And to be honest with you, I have ZERO idea where the rationale for Broken Windows came from. In my head it makes NO sense whatsoever—it feels like a version of trickle-down economics where we intentionally scapegoat the real problem, making the problem of crime worse. Maybe this worked in the decade it was proposed and the conditions it was “seen” in, but definitely not as a frame for today. People need empowerment, a sense of belonging and community, integration with the law enforcement and governments they are a part of, whether people like it or not. I’m not trying to sound prescriptive or anything, I’m just saying in an ideal world, a democracy is representative, it’s participatory, a government is not without the say, inclusion, and participation of its own governed—and that’s how I think communities should be. This is how we tailor efforts to a community’s needs by listening to what they have to say, not by looking at them and thinking to ourselves, “Oh, I think they need X, Y, and some Z.” No. Broken Windows does appear to have strong biases, creating more problems than solutions—I say move on from this useless state of paralysis.

    – JD


  2. I really like the video you posted near the bottom of your blog. It displays perfectly the problems associated with this aggressive form of policing. Like you said, the Broken Windows Theory leads to more people losing faith in the police, so why keep it around? Even if officers have arrested twice as many lower level offenders, it has been statistically proven not to affect the crime rate. Why? Because the offenders committing those serious crimes are being ignored. Broken Windows Theory can go hand in hand with Zero Tolerance policing. These strategies can also lead to crime displacement, referring to offenders moving to other areas to commit crime because it is recognized that the police are in specific marginalized areas. Also, like you said, this theory is racially biased, not particularly because of the specific police officer, but because lower level crime is more likely to be occurring in disadvantaged neighborhoods filled with minority citizens. Altogether, I agree with you that the Broken Windows Theory should not be used anywhere.


  3. Jair,
    I think your perspective on the Broken Windows theory is intriguing. I may have missed it, but what actually happened with the housing vouchers? Were the people from this study in areas where the theory was used in practice and moved to an area where it was not and if so, were these individuals involved in the crimes in the previous area? Community policing does seem to be a better solution, but what would be your suggestion to help initially improve the relationship between the community and officers, especially considering the current state of things? We discussed in Dr. Castle’s Comparative Justice class about Japan and their style of community policing. When comparing the societies and their justice systems, we have discussed how a policy transfer would be less effective than a policy diffusion into our current system. In my opinion, I think that a lot of the theories we learn about in these classes have some sort of merit and instead of focusing on the binary decision to base our policing practices off one theory or another, we should find a way to implement each in the most successful and effective manner possible.


  4. Your blog was very interesting because I have never thought about the downsides of the broken windows theory before. I think one of the main issues with the broken windows theory is that we are ignoring all other theories off why people commit crimes. Broken windows make sense on paper, but in the real word it works out differently. For some individuals drinking on their stoop could escalate to more serious types of crime, but for the majority it does not. Just because I’m drunk in public doesn’t mean I’m going to murder someone down the road. Broken windows targets low income and minority communities. Santa con is very good example of this. The crowd was mostly white people, if that crowd had been all black I think a majority of them would be arrested. The commissioner said they’re targeting behavior, but really they are targeting race. The officers don’t see the white people at santa con as threat, so they are free to commit all the low level crimes they want.


  5. I’ve seen a lot of information on the Broken Windows theory that notes it as a positive thing and I really liked how you approached the theory a little differently with a honest perspective. I agree with you. I have never really understood why this theory would work. A person who breaks a window or steals is not necessarily capable of crimes like murder and assault. I think that this mentality that cracking down on minor crimes is beneficial to stop more serious crimes is a factor of unnecessarily high prison rates. This causes more people to be imprisoned for minor drug crimes and smaller crimes. Therefore, I think that this theory hurts, more than it helps. That being said I do think this can help keep smaller crimes from escalating, not into crimes like murder and assault, but from becoming bigger versions of those small crimes. For example, people who start off stealing gum and do not get caught are likely to start stealing more and more. However, people who steal gum will not necessarily steal a car if they continue to not get caught.
    -Danyelle Rinker


  6. Reactionary policies are rarely effective because they don’t address root causes of crime. Dealing with disorder in the neighborhood is nice for community involvement, but does not prevent more serious offending. This is well documented in the literature, and addressed in multiple research studies, so it makes no sense that people still repeat this fallacy. One of the authors even revoked his previous statements on this, claiming that he had no idea this would give the police an excuse to target minority communities and decrease legitimacy.


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