Monday, February 11, 2008

Broken windows theory

A funny thing happens in our kitchen sink. Sometimes it doesn’t have any dirty dishes in it (okay, not that often, but it does happen). When the sink is empty, my family and I usually put our dishes straight into the dishwasher. At other times, however, there are dirty dishes sitting in the sink. When this happens, we all put any additional dishes straight into the sink, not even considering the extra several seconds it takes to put them into the dishwasher. Why in the world am I writing about my kitchen sink? It turns out that what happens with the sink is a reasonable analogy for one of the more important crime-prevention theories: the theory of broken windows.

The theory of broken windows originated from a 1982 article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in The Atlantic Monthly. They started with the idea that some broken windows in a building invite more broken windows. In their words:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”

“Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

According to Wilson and Kelling, the same holds true for neighborhoods and crime. Just as broken windows invite rocks, and dirty sinks get more dishes, so too certain characteristics of neighborhoods attract and promote crime. A neighborhood that is riddled with vandalism, litter, abandoned buildings and cars signals that no one is taking care of the neighborhood. A neighborhood that has lots of petty crime, such as public drunkenness, pickpockets, traffic violations, this signals that crime is accepted. In both cases the neighborhood is sending out a signal that crime is tolerated if not outright accepted. This encourages crime among residents of the neighborhood and it attracts criminals from other neighborhoods as well.

The importance of this theory is its implications for crime prevention. The way to cut down on crime in a given location, according to the broken window theory, is to change its physical and social characteristics. This can be done by repairing buildings, sidewalks, and roads, and fixing anything that makes a neighborhood look run down. It also means enforcing the law for even the smallest infractions. Police should ticket and/or arrest people for things as small as jaywalking, illegal panhandling, and public disorder. The logic is that by cracking down on small problems, the police are preventing more serious crimes.

The best known application of broken windows theory occurred in New York City, and depending on who you talk to, it was a smashing success in preventing crime, an irrelevant policy, or an invasion of individuals’ rights.

In 1993, Rudy Guiliani—a current presidential candidate—was elected mayor of New York City based on his “get tough on crime” platform. He hired William Bratton as the police chief. Bratton, who was heavily influenced by George Kelling, applied the clip_image002principles of broken windows theory. Bratton initiated a program of zero-tolerance in which the NYPD cracked down on all sorts of minor infractions, including subway fare dodging, public drinking urinating in public, and even the squeegee men—people who would wipe the windows of stopped cars and demand payment. A friend of mine who lived in New York City at that time even saw police telling people they could not sit on milk crates on the sidewalk-- apparently that was against the law as well.

Almost immediately rates of both petty and serious crimes dropped substantially. In the first year alone, murders were down 19% and car thefts fell by 15%, and crime continued to drop ever year for the following ten years.

So, was this application of broken windows an unqualified success? Some critics say no.

In the same time period, crime dropped significantly in other major cities around the country, cities that had not adopted broken windows policy. (See figure below). Crime dropped nationwide in the 1990s, and various reasons have been given for this overall crime drop. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was subsiding, and there were fewer people in the 15 to 25 year age group, which accounts for so much crime. As such, the declines seen in New York City did not result from new police policies but rather they would have happened anyway.


(The light blue line represents crime in Newark, NJ, purple Los Angles, red New York, and black the U.S. as a whole)

Other critics argue that regardless of the effectiveness of broken windows, it was too costly in terms of individual rights. They claim that the police, emboldened by the mandate to enforce even the smallest of laws, frequently crossed over into harassment of individuals, especially racial minorities and the poor. The application of broken windows, with its zeal for reducing crime, produced unacceptable police behavior.

Nonetheless, the results in New York City were sufficiently interesting that various police departments around the country have adopted principles of broken windows theory. In fact, William Bratton is now the police chief of Los Angeles.

P.S., this post shows that sociologists cover everything of social importance, including the kitchen sink.

Originally published in

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