Understanding The “Broken Windows” Theory: a reading list


Over at SCC Insight, I’ve posted a long treatise on the controversial “broken windows” theory, which holds that visible signs of public disorder signal to criminals that they may act with impunity, and thus they often trigger an increase in crime. The term and concept originated in a 1982 Atlantic article by researchers James Wilson and George Kelling.

It led to the well-publicized efforts of Rudy Giuliani and William Bratton in the 1990’s to crack down on crime in New York City by simultaneously cleaning up graffiti and other signs of physical disorder, and instituting an aggressive police crackdown on minor “social disorder” offenses. The impact of their “quality of life” initiative continues to be a subject of intense debate — as is the validity of Wilson and Kelling’s original premise. Dozens of studies have been conducted over the past four decades, with no clear consensus on whether visible disorder actually leads to increased crime.

There’s a popular saying in academic circles: ask ten professors a question, and you’ll get twelve different answers. The research studies on “broken windows” raise this same frustration: the conclusions are all over the map. It feels like there’s something there, but the signal is weak and the insights are dangling just out of reach. Yet the studies also give voice to serious concerns about police bias and overreach as officers are directed to crack down on minor offenses.

Here in Seattle, SPD’s extra “emphasis patrols” this summer have raised a fresh set of questions about the limits and effectiveness of broken windows policing, especially for a police department still under a consent decree for past biased policing practices. Many stakeholders will be looking at the statistics this fall to see whether the emphasis patrols made a difference to crime rates — and whether the department lived up to its promises not to deploy the most heavily criticized tactics promoted under the rubric of “broken windows” theory.

Nevertheless, “broken windows” policies are popular because they are rhetorically powerful, they have what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” and they conveniently make dealing with crime someone else’s problem. They propose an external, engineered solution to crime that elides the underlying problem: we’ve spent the last seventy years building (and rebuilding) urban architecture that stunts the kind of social cohesion required for neighbors to police their own blocks. The danger for cities like Seattle in embracing “broken windows” policies is that they distract us from the real work of fostering tight-knit communities, and in so doing build up an unsustainable dependence on police and other city services to deter crime through external interventions.

As is often the case, my research for the article uncovered some fascinating and insightful written materials that stretched my thinking on the topic in unexpected directions (in addition to the dozens of dry research papers attempting to validate the theory over the last 37 years, which unless you are in desperate need of a cure for insomnia, you can safely skip). Here is my recommended reading list for further exploring the “broken windows” theory:

A Reading List

  1. Broken Windows. This is the original 1982 Wilson and Kelling article that coined the term “broken windows” and linked it to the idea that disorder leads to crime. Surprisingly for a pair of researchers, it’s light on actual research, and mostly serves as an opinion piece where the pair breeze through the numerous public-policy implications of their core assertion. We see their “tough on crime” attitude toward decriminalizing minor offenses. But they also share their prescient worries that “broken windows” policies could lead to racist policing strategies.
  2. Anonymity of Place Stimulates Destructive Vandalism. This is Stanford psychology researcher Philip Zimbardo describing his second-most-famous experiment, in which he left abandoned cars on the streets of the Bronx and Palo Alto and observed what happened to them. While nominally a study of anonymity, it is widely cited — including by Wilson and Kelling — as the inspiration for the “broken windows” theory. It’s also notable for Zimbardo giving his own reaction to his experiment being used to justify “broken windows.”
  3. Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing. This book, by Bernard Harcourt, explores the power of “broken windows” theory as a rhetorical tool. He argues that its power lies in the fact that it re-interprets “nuisances” ranging from graffiti to loitering as “harmful” activities because they are directly tied to an increase in crime. The book traces the history of preventing (or punishing) “harm” as a driving factor in the criminal justice system, and shows how the nexus of “broken windows” theory and “harm” is used to create broad justification for aggressive, zero-tolerance police practices.
  4. Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy, and the Criminal Point of View. The magic of this 2007 book by researcher Peter St. Jean is that a full quarter century after Wilson and Kelling first introduced us to “broken windows” theory, the author finally did the most obvious thing: he asked actual criminals whether they pay attention to visible signs of disorder in neighborhoods. Spoiler: yes, but not in the way you think. From his field research work, St. Jean derives new insights into how “ecological advantages” make certain sites particularly attractive to criminals.
  5. The Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic. Ghostwritten for William Bratton, the former NYPD chief who introduced “quality of life” police initiatives to crack down on minor offenses based on “broken windows” theory. This is Bratton detailing without humility what he did, why he did it, and why he thinks every other police department should follow suit. To be honest, if Bratton hadn’t been so central to the widespread adoption of “broken windows” policing, this book wouldn’t make the list. But he was, and it is, because first-person accounts matter.
  6. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This 1961 book by Jane Jacobs is a tour de force, a scathing indictment of urban planning in the 1950s and 1960s and the damage she believes it did to the social fabric of large U.S. cities. Despite the fact that it was written twenty one years before Wilson and Kelling wrote their Atlantic article, it perfectly contextualizes “broken windows” policing for us by explaining how urban neighborhoods organically organized to maintain order before post-WWII urban planning made it nearly impossible for them to do so. After reading Jacobs’ descriptions of the numerous artificial fixes that urban planners introduce into neighborhoods to try to patch over the damage they have done, we can see “broken windows” policies for what they are: a band-aid that ignores the underlying wound.

Image by Paul Barlow from Pixabay

Kevin Schofield
Kevin Schofieldhttp://sccinsight.com
Kevin is a city hall reporter and the founder of SCC Insight, a web site focused on providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and Seattle City Hall in general. In a previous life, he worked for 26 years in the tech industry in a variety of positions but most notably as the COO of the research division at Microsoft. Kevin volunteers at the Woodland Park Zoo, where he is also on the Board of Directors. He is also the Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of Harvey Mudd College.


  1. Interesting discussion. You offer a thoughtful review of the studies out there.
    You may be right that zero tolerance policies are merely bandaids for deeper wounds. But I think it’s hard to argue that high tolerance for crime does not allow more crime to take place. When repeat offenders keep getting sent out on the streets they do keep offending. Obviously, it would be great if more coherent policies with long term impacts we’re undertaken.
    What seems to have happened in New York, however, was a rapid reduction in crime without deeper reforms. There seems to be no question that demographics and other factors played a key role. But I think it’s hard to discount what happened in New York. When I was a student there in the fall of 1982, I was mugged three times during my first three months there. It was open hunting season and I was easy prey. I was a naive student relatively recently arrived from Japan and the west coast and not street wise. I lived on the edge of Harlem and frequently went to the Bronx for writing assignments. NewYork was a frightening place for me during that year.
    Returning to the city many times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I felt far safer. Just one data point, but for me, a difficult one to ignore. Meanwhile, it seems to me that tolerance for minor crimes in Seattle has given cover to allow for more serious crimes, though I wouldn’t be able to prove it. Seattle feels a lot less safe. I hear of people feeling less comfortable walking in parks and other areas. And I’ve seen the dramatic changes in areas like Westlake Mall, where the city combined an increase in activities with better enforcement. A formerly scary area has become quite pleasant.
    I know it’s important to address deeper wounds, and it would be interesting to discuss what those wounds are in Seattle’s case and how we should address them. But I guess as a resident of Seattle, I would want band aids applied as well so we don’t take the chance of repeating New York’s hellish experience of the early 1980s.

  2. “Broken windows” always presents itself as a frame for considering issues of policing and crime. Shouldn’t there also be a bigger picture and a broader inquiry?

    Keep the place halfway tidy and the basic livability appeal of any urban environments is enhanced, is it not? Never mind the crime statistics.

    We don’t need to quell or lay to rest every quibble and qualification.  No, I’m not talking green lawn Levittown as our desired standard. A brown summer lawn in Seattle should be a badge of water conservation virtue.  Yes, civic housekeeping includes all manner of municipal, neighborhood and personal enterprise. The civic fabric is nobody’s sole responsibility and everybody’s collective responsibility.  Of course, different neighborhoods can and should have unique and different feels.  

    But here’s the heart of it.  Never mind policing and broken windows.  Why can’t Seattle Department of Transportation and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection get the blackberries cut back from impassable sidewalks and the homeowners prodded into trimming the tree branches that will poke the eye out of any nighttime walker?   Why are overflowing dumpsters literally just unremarked-upon street furniture?

    I’d love to see a researcher study whether a city that looked like it wanted to be livable, in fact lifts citizens’ sentiment that the city was livable.   Unfortunately, Seattle is no candidate city for conducting that research today.   Why is this city such a mess? 

  3. It comes back to the homelessness problem. People living on the streets telegraph failure of society to lift up lower-wage workers in a booming economy. Crime and poverty in a high-tech, highly educated, growing city reflect a lack of leadership and empathy.


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