Criminal LawResearch Article

Theory of Broken Windows: Environments’ Influence on Crime Rate

Author: Kanishka Choudhary, 3rd year LL.B. student


This research paper contains the comprehensive study of theory ‘broken windows’ of criminology which was propounded by political scientist James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, well revered criminologist who introduced this theory and published in The Atlantic, in 1982. This theory basically talks about the petty crimes or civil disorder created in an environment could result in increased number of crimes or disorder in the society at large. In simple words it means “zero tolerance” policies where police authority officials oversee petty crimes like loitering, public intoxication etc. to be punished severely if convicted of committing these crimes. This theory has deeply affected the ways of policing and how crimes and disorderliness in the society has permuted the role of police in the contemporary world. The integration of this theory in the strategies of policing is reflected through its adaptation by the police authorities from coast to coast. The patrons of this theory aver that it has dramatically improved the living conditions in urban areas and has reduced the commission of violent crime. Conversely, broken windows theory has been criticized by many criminologists and academic disciplines, as they hold that the theory is highly flawed and instead of reducing the rate of crime it would deteriorate the police-community relationship. This paper also discusses how this theory is still relevant in the contemporary world and has made impacted the law enforcement, academics and criminal justice.


Meaning of Broken Windows

The theory ‘broken windows’ is a policing method which tends to tackle minor crimes like vandalism, loitering, fare evasion etc. and assist in creating a safe atmosphere of law and order by preventing commission of serious crimes. According to Wilson and Kelling “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things,” which was also put in practice either by frisking or arresting more people, specifically those who live in high-crime areas and this practice resulted in surge of reports that police by unfair means targeted the minorities, more specifically black men. It was believed that by making people confront their minor mistakes can help to influence how people respond to external environment specifically their sense of safety. It was coined by well-known social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. Although this theory hasn’t been fully adopted or further supported in the research.
Wilson and Kelling proposed the idea that disorder in the neighbourhood and incivilities is linked to increased levels of fear within the community and its residents and this fear leads to decreased level of investment and engagement in that particular community. LaGrange, Ferraro, and Supancic elaborates that an individual person perceives an area as dangerous or disorderly results to an increase in fear of victimization. Those people who perceive their own neighbourhood as “perilous” are more likely to distance themselves from that place and spend more time indoors. Moreover, a lawful and law-abiding individual from outside neighbourhood are less likely to spend their time in perilous areas or area more susceptible to crime. For instance, a survey was conducted and data was collected on residents’ fear of crime and criminals, along with researcher made observation on physical dilapidation at the street fragments level. According to this survey the researchers contended a strong connection between dilapidation and residents’ levels of fear. Parks and other public places are seen as space where people gather and interact leaves a positive influence which strengthens perceived intervention when deviant behaviour is in question. If such regions or areas fall into disrepair can lead to increased level of physical disorder, fear of victimization or crime as well as increases in actual crime rates in the neighbourhood. It was observed in a research that when the physical condition of a park was evaluated to be risky, drug activities and delinquent behaviours was largely seen.
It has been observed that Neighbourhoods with high numbers of vacant properties cab be said to be an indicator that a neighbourhood is dilapidated. Vacant properties were seen focal point of various studies, which have been used disposition of theoretical frameworks inclusive of theory of broken windows. These vacant dwellings and properties found to be associated with higher rates of property crimes and spontaneous fires in many cases. A conclusion was drawn that empty neighbourhoods with vacant dwellings means lesser number of residents residing there which directly result in decreased supervision. More number of residents in a neighbourhood plays a big role in protecting that area or said to be perceived informal social control. Hence, the decrease in guardianship or control would be perceived as risky place to live, also makes the neighbourhood and its residents even more susceptible to potential victimization.

Important concepts in this Theory


Self-awareness is one of the basic concepts of the theory and it implies that one has to be aware of his surrounding and cannot put the blame on any other person. If a person is not self-aware of the situation around him or her, that person must watch his or her neighbourhood and try to report any disorder. If possible, one must take prompt action against it because it is impossible for an officer to be available at every place or be readily available at the crime scene as it takes some time for the police officer, to reach the place. At that time an individual can help the authorities becoming eyes of the law. Playing this role by all the prudent members of the community can significantly help in decreasing the crime.
While on the other hand, many residents refuse to come forward as they believe regulating disorder is not their work or responsibility. Both Wilson and Kelling in their studies and research conducted by done by psychologists found that people usually refuse to go to help someone in need, not due to lack of concern or selfishness “but the absence of credible grounds for feeling that one must personally accept responsibility”. It was argued that everyone differently perceives a disorder and can comprehend seriousness of a particular crime based on those perceptions only. However, both the man felt that more involvement within the members of the community can make a huge difference, though “the police are plainly the key to order maintenance.”


In generic sense disorders are of two types: (a) social disorder and (b) civil/physical disorder. The term disorder means disruption in the systematic functioning or a state of utter confusion. An area can become a hotspot of disorder created by crime which can be explained by an example suppose there is a block where the roads are connected to the main road which is in extremely poor condition due to which police officers couldn’t patrol the area. Now the robbers are aware of the fact that no police can come at the moment, this can add up the crimes and create disorder in that particular place.
The physical disorder means the level of maintenance for a neighbourhood’s physical state. It is inclusive of state of buildings, property surrounding the building etc. Whereas, the Social disorder means the social activities or interactions visible to the public are considered to be aberrant or out of order to most individuals of the community. Presence of non-violent people but capable of becoming one possessing the characteristics like of a drunk, prostitute, loiterers etc. could cause social disorder in their surroundings. Both the disorders are predicted to be indicator to potential offenders can act without restraints. Hence, being ignorant and lack of intervention in unacceptable kind of social interaction will encourage problematic behaviour and crime rate. More individual become more fearful of crime occurring in their neighbourhood which leads to detachment from the neighbourhood, thus rotting the amount of informal social control, which would lead to flourishing of criminal activities.
A scholar of criminal justice branch Ralph Taylor found in his studies that there cannot be a distinct relationship between crime and disorder. He found that there could be some specific crimes which create a specific kind of disorder. At the end he concluded that it would wrong to connect a disorder in general sense with crime as an act might not be accurate or correct reflection of the disorderly state. Moreover, a specific kind of problem has to be deal with a specific solution.

Zero tolerance

Zero tolerance is a policing strategy which helps in maintaining and controlling the social disorder in a neighbourhood. It is believed that the small crimes can lead to heinous crimes if not controlled on time. Therefore, as per this policy the police wouldn’t have to bear the small offences. This policy is not immune to criticism; in the disapproving way it has been regarded as the extremist kind of approach which is culmination of rigid, moralistic standards and pattern of behaviour on diverse populations. It is a policy which must be performed after careful training and supervision, as well as a good level of interaction in neighbourhoods and communities to ensure that it is properly followed. Hence, this policy is at the discretionary police activity which requires extra careful training.
Bratton and Kelling both advocates that authorities should be sensitive and effective at catching minor offenders while also keeping in mind that they are juvenile and giving them lenient punishment. The goal of this policy is to discourage minor offenders from committing more serious kind of crimes in future.

Role of fear

Role of fear is quite crucial in the broken window policy as also argued by Ranasinghe. She contended that fear lays the foundation of the theory. She further added that disorder in public is “…unequivocally constructed as problematic because it is a source of fear”. Wilson and Kelling insist not to focus on its central importance and argued that fear is just a consequence of impertinence not crime also making the residents as feeling demoralized and disengaged. Hinkle and Weisburd believed that police intervention to catch offenders of minor offenses would, significantly increase the probability of feeling unsafe,” as such interventions could counterpoise the benefits of this theory policing in terms of fear reduction.

Advantage of the Theory

The advantage of this theory over its criminological precursors is that it originates a policy to effect change, instead of placing reliance on social policy in criminal justice system. There had been other social and economics disorganization theories that seemed to be pretty costlier in comparison and would take rather loner time to show some effects. This theory has been considered to be more effective with nominal expenses with just a minor police crime control strategy.

Applicability of broken windows theory

This theory has always seen well as an idea than as a rendition of the reality or the real world. The fundamental issue that arose with this theory was that perceptions of disorder generally racially biased and the racial composition of a neighbourhood has a more effect than with the number of broken windows. It is also criticized as it is used as a tool to criminalize the poor and homeless which indicates blatant class bias. It also has been widely debated within the within the social sciences and the public sphere and considered as controversial practice followed by police. It was criticized because New York City Police Department used “stop-and-frisk” method. To this Bratton and Kelling wrote that broken windows policing should not be treated as “zero tolerance” but only as a method which needs diligent training, guidelines, and supervision. It can eventually help to create a positive relationship between the communities and the policing officials.
After the assessment of this theory its policing practices creates ambiguity in terms of its capability to reduce crime. This ambiguity relates to the measures and steps used to represent disorder. For example, this theory uses frequently the policing where arrests made for wrongdoings is the indicator as which area needs more policing and maintenance. The main question arises whether these areas have high level of physical disorder in the neighbourhood. It was found that physical disorder is a one discrete variable and the theory fails to include the multi-faceted factors within the disorder, and how these different layers have impact on the crime.

New York

Kelling was hired by the New York City Transit Authority as a consultant in 1985 and then later in Boston and the Los Angeles police departments. Kelling and his supporter David L. Gunn implemented policies and rules based on the Broken Windows Theory when he was serving as the President of the Transit Department. His efforts proved fruitful as he led a successful campaign to get rid of the menace of graffiti in New York’s subway system from 1984 to 1990. Another proponent of Kelling, William J. Bratton described him as his mentor and brought stringent rules on fare evasion, prompt arresting method and keeping a background check of these arrested offenders in 1990.
Later William was hired as police commissioner implemented similar policies and practices throughout the city when Rudy Giuliani was elected as Mayor in 1993. He took petty offences like fare evasion, public drinking, urination in open public places, graffiti etc. very seriously putting emphasize on the importance of minor crimes that affect quality of life negatively.
A study was conducted in 2001, where it was found that rates of both petty and serious crime fell significantly after the implementation of policies based on the broken window model. Furthermore, crime rate continually seen to fell down in the following 10 years. This proved that these policies based on the theory were effective in reduction of crime on a larger scale. However, there was one problem which study failed to show the relationship of cause and effect between implementation of these policies and decreased crime rate. Other cities of the country saw significant level of reduction of crimes despite the fact they followed different policing strategies. Increased employment rate is another factor in New York City which explains the reduction of crime.


There has been positive impact of the policy as seen in New York as significant drop in crime rates (including serious crimes). Almost 40% drop in overall crime and over 50% in homicide was seen. Proponent of Broken Windows on the political right in America remarked this theory as a success, but it faced two main criticisms.
The application of this theory was within the same period as of economic growth and a reduction in poverty which lessens the credibility on these policies. It is strongly believed that social conditions are a big factor of level of crimes in a society hence this theory suggest that the crime rates in New York fell because the social conditions in New York improved significantly.
Some criticised Broken Windows theory police supported control instead of providing justice. Even though the crime rate fell but offenders of petty crimes were serving longer period in the prison. There was enough evidence which shows this policy was tougher on the minorities like ethnic groups, specifically African Americans and Latin Americans as compared to the majority of white population across the country. Since police had power of discretion made the implementation and use of broken windows unjust and unreasonable.
Many proponents of this theory found it effective while the critics found it full of flaws and unreliable to be applied in the policing methods. It doesn’t explain everything and lacks important variables and factors responsible for crime. Hence, it leaves the validity of this theory ambiguous and questionable. Though the role of fear played a huge part and can be validated as there is a direct link between disorder and fear. As fear makes a person abandon community or neighbourhood which are hostile and susceptible to more crimes.



[2] LaGrange, R.L.; Ferraro, K.F.; Supancic, M. Perceived risk and fear of crime: Role of social and physical incivilities. J. Res. Crime Delinq. 1992, 29, 311–334.

[3] Taylor, R.B.; Shumaker, S.A.; Gottfredson, S.D. Neighborhood-level links between physical features and local sentiments: Deterioration, fear of crime, and confidence. J. Archit. Plan. Res. 1985, 2, 261–275

[4] Cohen, D.A.; Inagami, S.; Finch, B. The built environment and collective efficacy. Health Place 2008, 14, 198–208.

[5] Cohen, D.A.; Inagami, S.; Finch, B. The built environment and collective efficacy. Health Place 2008, 14, 198–208.

[6] Sampson, R.J.; Raudenbush, S.W. Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods. Am. J. Sociol. 1999, 105, 603–651.


[8] Retrieved 29 October 2020.



[11] Ranasinghe, P (2012), “Jane Jacobs’ framing of public disorder and its relation to the ‘broken windows’ theory”, Theoretical Criminology, 16 (1): 63–84, doi:10.1177/1362480611406947, S2CID 144274542.

[12]  Ranasinghe 2012, p. 67.

[13] Hinkle, Joshua C.; Weisburd, David (November 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, doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2008.09.010.

[14] Weisburd, D.; Hinkle, J.C.; Braga, A.A.; Wooditch, A. Understanding the mechanisms underlying broken windows policing: The need for evaluation evidence. J. Res. Crime Delinq. 2015, 52, 589–608.


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