Introduction to Broken Windows Theory

By Ayesh Perera, published Jan 22, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • The broken windows theory is a criminological theory which, employing broken windows as a metaphor for anti-social behavior and civil disorder, and links the occurrence of serious crimes with visible signs of incivility in a community (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).
  • The theory holds that policing approaches targeting misdemeanors such as vandalism, fare evasion, public drinking, and loitering can help create an environment favorable to law and order.

Zimbardo’s Study

In 1969, the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in which he arranged two automobiles in the same condition, with their hoods up and no license plates, to be parked in two different locations—one in Bronx, New York, and the other in Palo Alto, California.


Within minutes, the car in Bronx was attacked. The first vandals comprised a family, a mother and father with their young son, who removed the battery and radiator. Within the ensuing 24 hours, the vehicle was stripped of everything valuable.

Not long afterwards, the car’s upholstery was ripped, its windows were smashed, and soon children were playing upon it. Meanwhile, the car in Palo Alto would remain untouched for more than 7 days.

Finally, Zimbardo went and smashed the car using a sledgehammer. Soon, others joined in, and the car was destroyed. Most of those involved in the vandalism herein were well dressed and apparently decent individuals.

The study seemed to support the conclusion that communities with histories of theft and abandoned property are more likely to experience vandalism because apathy to the erosion of civility is likely to engender and encourage unacceptable behavior.

Wilson and Kelling - Broken Window Policy

Despite the abovementioned early experiments, the concept was first introduced as a theory by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in March 1982 in their article “Broken Windows” in The Atlantic Monthly.

Herein, they noted, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing” (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Broken Windows Theory

Source: Hinkle, J. C., & Weisburd, D. (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.

The theory would be further developed by George Kelling and Catherine Coles in their 1996 book Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities.

The book discussed strategies to curb crimes in urban neighborhoods, and posited that addressing problems while they are small (e.g., immediately repairing broken windows and cleaning the sidewalks daily) could stop minor misconduct from escalating into major crimes (Kelling & Coles, 1997).

The theory soon gained enormous attention. While its advocates sought to enact it via various law enforcement initiatives, its detractors showed no reluctance in denouncing what they saw as its adverse aspects.

Examples of Broken Windows Policing

New York City

Giulian Broken Window Policing

The 1990s saw the broken windows theory significantly shaping law enforcement policy. Having hired George Kelling as a consultant in 1985, New York City authorities soon embarked on an ambitious project to reduce crime (Fagan & Garth, 2000).

Led by Police Commissioner William Bratton, New York City adopted an aggressive order-maintenance approach, deploying squads of plain-clothes officers to make arrests for misdemeanors.

The ‘quality of life initiative’ of 1994, in particular, cracked down on disorderly conduct, panhandling, street prostitution, unsolicited windshield washing and public drinking. By 1996, when Bratton resigned, the rate of homicide had been halved and felonies had decreased by nearly 40%.

Lowell, Massachusetts

New York City’s success would soon inspire similar policing around the United States. For instance, researchers from Harvard and Suffolk tracked down 34 hotspots for crime in Lowell, Massachusetts, and local authorities reorganized half of these regions (Johnson, 2009; Ruhl, 2021).

They increased misdemeanor arrests, fixed streetlights, and cleaned up the trash. The other half of the crime hotspots remained unaltered. Calls to the police dropped by a notable 20% in the areas which had been cleaned up by the law enforcement.

Making regular arrests as well as significantly changing the landscape of the city seemed to have profoundly improved the safety of the environment.

Tokyo, Japan

The local government of Adachi Ward, Tokyo, which once had Tokyo’s highest crime rates, introduced the “Beautiful Windows Movement” in 2008 (Hino & Chronopoulos, 2021).

The intervention was twofold. The program, on one hand, drawing on the broken windows theory, promoted policing to prevent minor crimes and disorder. On the other hand, in partnership with citizen volunteers, the authorities launched a project to make Adachi Ward literally beautiful.

Following 11 years of implementation, the reduction in crime was undeniable. Felony had dropped from 122 in 2008 to 35 in 2019, burglary from 104 to 24, and bicycle theft from 93 to 45.

This Japanese case study seemed to further highlight the advantages associated with translating the broken widow theory into both aggressive policing and landscape altering.

Pros and Cons of Broken Windows Policing

Despite its salutary effects, the broken windows theory has been challenged as a fallacious slippery slope argument that fuels fear of youth and class bias (Harcourt, 2009).

Critics have contended that punishing misdemeanors, such as avoiding subway fares, imposes penalties on economic desperation, and that such harsh policing discriminates against a society’s lower socio-economic classes, and by extension, certain racial minorities.

Another major criticism of the theory holds that policing inspired by the broken windows theory justifies needless rules (e.g., prohibiting people from painting their houses with certain colors) and wasteful government expenditure (e.g., the cost of regular police patrols).

Notwithstanding the criticism, the theory’s proponents adamantly defend its merits against its adversaries. Heather Mac Donald, the author of The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, for instance, has pointed out that government spending on misdemeanor enforcement interrupts criminal conduct before it could ripen into felony (Donald, 2016).

She has repeatedly noted that “the solution to racial disparities in the criminal-justice system is not to target policing,” but “to bring the Black crime rate down” by “revalorizing the two-parent family” (Harcourt, 2009).

In conclusion, denounced by some and praised by others, the broken windows theory remains a controversial means of reducing crime and maintaining law and order.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Ayesh, P. (2022, Jan 22). Introduction to broken windows theory. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

Fagan, J., & Davies, G. (2000). Street stops and broken windows: Terry, race, and disorder in New York City. Fordham Urb. LJ, 28, 457.

Harcourt, B. E. (2009). Illusion of order: The false promise of broken windows policing. Harvard University Press.

Harcourt, B. E., & Ludwig, J. (2006). Broken windows: New evidence from New York City and a five-city social experiment. U. Chi. L. Rev., 73, 271.

Johnson, C. Y. (2009). Breakthrough on “broken windows.” Boston Globe.

Kelling, G. L., & Coles, C. M. (1997). Fixing broken windows: Restoring order and reducing crime in our communities. Simon and Schuster.

Ruhl, C. (2021, July 26). The broken windows theory. Simply Psychology.

Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic monthly, 249(3), 29-38.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska press.