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Breaking Down the Broken Windows Theory

• January 07, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Juanan Barros Moreno/Shutterstock)

As Rudy Giuliani’s old police commissioner William Bratton returns to New York City, new research still fuels a debate over their pet policy.

On Thursday, New York City’s new progressive mayor swore in an old familiar police commissioner. William J. Bratton, tapped by Bill de Blasio to head the NYPD, was previously Rudy Giuliani’s first police commissioner in 1994—and before that, the head of the New York City Transit Police. Together with Giuliani, “America’s Top Cop” (as Bratton called himself in his 1998 memoir) oversaw the adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy for petty crimes, and a renewed focus on “quality of life” issues. Bratton established the controversial CompStat system, still in use today, and he has been called the “architect” of stop-and-frisk.

Many of Bratton’s tendencies to uncover and punish low-level crimes so aggressively can be traced back to his guiding philosophy, the broken windows theory. It’s a concept that social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling first described in their 1982 article in The Atlantic. They argued the significance of the link between disorder and crime. The “broken window” is a symbol of unaccountability. If one window in a building is broken and left unfixed, they argued, it is likely that the rest of the windows will be broken soon, too.

The idea is that people—specifically potential criminals—take cues from their surroundings and calibrate their behavior based on what they see. If a city block is litter-free and its buildings are well-maintained, people will be less likely to litter or vandalize there, because they will sense that they will be held accountable if they do so. “Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers,” Wilson and Kelling write, “rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

Bratton and others expanded the meaning of this metaphorical window to include the common, victimless but troublesome crimes that occur every day in urban areas. Order begets accountability, the theory goes; disorder begets crime. So, enforcing the smallest laws could prevent the large ones from being broken. As head of the Transit Police, Bratton had zero tolerance for graffiti and turnstile-jumping. As head of the NYPD, he cracked down on so-called “squeegee men.” (Kelling, one of the authors of the original Atlantic article, had also been earlier hired by New York City as a consultant.) Violent crime dropped 51 percent in New York City in the 1990s, and homicide dropped 72 percent. These impressive results gave both the broken windows theory and the policies it inspired the sheen of unassailability.

A paper put out by the non-profit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in 2004 also attacked any policy that punished graffiti-tagging teens under the assumption that they or their neighbors were potential future murderers or rapists.

Embraced by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and then attacked by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in Freakonomics, broken windows has become a popular morsel of pop-sociology to throw into cocktail-party chatter. But does any data actually support the tidy equation? Ever since Wilson and Kelling, and long after Bratton and Giuliani, academic and scientific research has continued—some of which has concluded with harsh criticism of the policy. Some critics argue that aggressive policing of low-level offenses (and low-level offenders) brings unjust side effects; others say there’s no evidence it lowers crime anyway, regardless of how fair it is.

Correlation does not imply causation, after all. Many critics of broken windows have pointed out that violent crime fell in New York at the same period of time as unemployment dropped and the economy strengthened—surely factors at least as important as the disappearance of squeegee guys. An influential 2006 article in the University of Chicago Law Review by Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig argued that the falling-crime trend in 1990s New York ran parallel to the natural waning of the crack epidemic that had ravaged the city in the years before. Other researchers found from their experiments that disorder does not cause crime; rather, disorder and crime co-exist, and are both caused by the same social and economic factors.

A paper put out by the non-profit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in 2004 also attacked any policy that punished graffiti-tagging teens under the assumption that they or their neighbors were potential future murderers or rapists. The author stressed that “with so many arrests on minor charges, more and more people (especially young minority males) will have a record, thus hindering their job prospects in the future and perhaps even propelling them into more crime, especially drug crimes.”

Even as Wilson and Kelling’s original article ages, the debate it sparked still continues. Several new studies examining the broken windows theory are just out this month, in fact. In the latest issue of the journal Applied Geography, Gregory D. Breetzke and Amber L. Pearson explore the aspect of the theory that maintains that small crimes will gradually increase discomfort and fear in neighborhood residents—and that when the fear causes the residents to retreat, a sense of neglect will pervade the area, which will in turn implicitly invite more crime.

Breetzke and Pearson examined the impact of reported crime on just how vulnerable people feel in their own immediate neighborhoods, and in their larger towns or cities.  They came to the conclusion with their study in New Zealand that “crime within an individual’s own neighborhood influenced their fear of crime but crime occurring within neighboring communities had little or no effect on their feelings of safety and security.” Perhaps the “fear factor,” as they call it, is real, but it is very limited. This study did not, however, delve into the larger impact of that fear on additional crime—which would be the completion of the broken windows cycle.

Lyndsay N. Boggess and Jon Maskaly address the theory more directly, in a study of Reno, Nevada, that they published in this month’s issue of Social Science Research. By tracking crime in 117 Reno neighborhoods, they hoped to see whether disorder and crime are directly linked, and if so, how far in space and time that “link” would stretch. They found that “higher rates of disorder” did increase the rate of violent crime, “but the magnitude of the impact is minimal.” By their highly technical and rather obscure calculations, “an increase of one in the rate of disorder per 1,000 residents will only increase the violent crime rate by 0.007 per 1,000 residents.”

Finally, and fittingly, criminologists Joshua C. Hinkle and Sue-Ming Yang present a sort of meta-argument in the Journal of Criminal Justice, against the methodology of any scientific attempts to test the broken windows theory out in the field. Many researchers, many more than the ones mentioned here, have tried to measure “disorder” and its resulting effects on neighborhood residents’ feelings of fear, and on crime, but Hinkle and Yang describe how subjective and imprecise these experiments necessarily are. Who decides how much litter on the street is acceptable, or what is normal, or transgressive behavior, in a given neighborhood? In every study they looked at, the neighborhood residents’ perceptions of social and physical disorder differed from the researchers’ perceptions. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways,” the authors write, and conclude, “social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete phenomenon.”

Overall, the conversation about the connections between “quality of life” indicators and crime trends has taken on such a life of its own over the decades that it may hardly matter that the authors of the broken windows theory themselves have acknowledged that it was just that—a theory. Harcourt and Ludwig’s 2006 article in the Law Review cites a New York Times interview from two years earlier, when James Q. Wilson was asked about what empirical data supported their idea, and he answered that there was none. ”I still to this day do not know if improving order will or will not reduce crime,” Wilson said in 2004. ”People have not understood that this was a speculation.”

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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