Broken Windows Theory


Baltimore Police Department
Broken Windows Theory

The Broken Windows Theory, is an academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighborhoods. Their theory links disorder and rudeness within a community to subsequent occurrences of crime. First small nuisances that will become small crimes, and small crimes become big crimes.

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Broken windows was developed by two academics, but it was never offered as an academic theory in the peer-reviewed journals.  It emerged as a piece in Atlantic Monthly, a somewhat sophisticated magazine.  The theory is been much maligned in the media of late because it has been conflated with some terrible ideas and racist practices such as “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk” tactics.  The actual application of the theory to neighborhood policing dictates a specific type of partnership between police and citizens that would, if implemented properly, improve relationships between citizens and police.  The major flaw of the theory seems to be that it is an oversimplification of a complex set of social phenomena, and thus lacks much empirical support.

Since criminologist George L. Kelling and his coauthor James Q. Wilson published their “broken windows” more than 30 years ago, it has become a sort of “standard” theoretical explanation of why community policing is a good idea.  It was quickly taken up by several major police departments, including the LAPD, as part of community policing. It called for the building of police and community partnerships that would seek to prevent local crime and to create order. The basic logic was the simple premise that interrupting minor offenses before they could snowball and open the door to serious crimes, including violent crimes. 

At the core of the Broken Windows thesis is that incivilities beget further incivilities, and the severity of the incivilities gets worse over time.  At some point, the mere incivilities evolve into serious crime if the causal chain is not broken. It is important to note that Broken Windows does not suggest how problems should be solved, and it certainly never specifies that arrest is always the most appropriate tool.  Heavy-handed tactics like New York’s “stop and frisk” program cannot be reconciled with Broken Windows, nor with the problem-oriented approach that is often found in conjunction with it.

Prior to the advancement of various incivility theories such as broken windows, policing scholars and the police themselves tended to focus on serious crime.  The major concern was always with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape, robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling viewed the crime problem from a different, more holistic vantage point. They saw “serious crime” as the ultimate outcome of a much longer chain of neighborhood phenomena, theorizing that crime stemmed from “disorder,” and that if disorder dissipated, then serious crimes would not occur.

The link between disorder and crime was theorized to be mediated by fear of crime, an important social variable in its own right.  Wilson and Kelling’s theory further postulates that the proliferation of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who are persuaded that the neighborhood is unsafe.  The fear of crime, which can range in intensity from a slight unease to a debilitating fear of victimization, causes residents to withdraw behind closed doors in order to remain safe. This withdrawal from the community weakens social controls that previously kept criminals in check. Once this process begins, the theory suggests, it tends to start a destructive feedback loop. Neighborhood disorder causes crime, and crime encourages yet more disorder and crime.  

A major aspect of the popularity of Broken Windows is the fact that it creates a theoretical framework for police practice.  Most criminological theories support changes in macro-level social policy rather than police policy within the framework of community policing. Earlier social disorganization theories offered solutions that were highly political, costly to develop and implement, and would take a long time to demonstrate any effectiveness.  These theoretical causes of neighborhood problems and crime are more appropriate to legislatures than they are to police departments. Broken Windows theory is seen by many as a way to institute rapid neighborhood-level change with minimal expense by simply altering the police crime-control strategy. It is far easier and less costly to attack “disorder” than it is to assail such daunting social ills as poverty and deficient education.  


Kelling, G. L. & Wilson, J. Q. (1982). Broken Windows:  The police and neighborhood safety.  The Atlantic.

Credit to author Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

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