Broken Windows Theory | Definition

Course: Policing / Criminology

The Broken Windows Theory posits that visible signs of disorder, like graffiti, can create an atmosphere leading to more serious crime in a community.

The Broken Windows Theory, a concept in criminology, proposes that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder can contribute to an atmosphere of disorder and ultimately lead to more serious crime. Examples of these signs include broken windows, graffiti, littering, and loitering. The theory posits that if a neighborhood or community allows such minor offenses to go unchecked, it sends a message that no one is in control and that the area is not well-maintained. This perception of lawlessness can then encourage more serious criminal activity.

The theory was first introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in an article published in The Atlantic Monthly. Their work aimed to provide a new perspective on understanding and combating crime in urban environments. Since its introduction, the Broken Windows Theory has been widely adopted by law enforcement agencies around the world and has been credited with helping to reduce crime rates in many cities.

The Premise of the Broken Windows Theory

The Broken Windows Theory is based on the idea that minor signs of disorder in a community can have a significant impact on the overall crime rate. Wilson and Kelling used the metaphor of a broken window to illustrate their point: if a single broken window in a building is left unrepaired, it is likely that more windows will be broken, as people perceive the area as neglected and uncared for. The same principle applies to neighborhoods and communities – when small acts of crime or disorder go unaddressed, it can create an environment where people feel that larger, more serious crimes are acceptable.

In essence, the theory suggests that by addressing these minor offenses, law enforcement agencies can create a sense of order and control in a community, which in turn can help to prevent more serious criminal activity. This approach to policing is often referred to as “order maintenance” or “quality of life” policing.

The Impact of the Broken Windows Theory on Policing

The adoption of the Broken Windows Theory by law enforcement agencies has led to a significant shift in the focus of policing, particularly in urban environments. Police departments began to prioritize addressing minor offenses, such as vandalism, fare evasion, public drinking, and loitering, in an effort to create a sense of order in the community and deter more serious crime.

Many cities that have implemented this approach to policing have seen a reduction in crime rates. For example, in the 1990s, New York City saw a dramatic decrease in crime after the police department adopted the Broken Windows Theory and began aggressively targeting minor offenses. This approach was later replicated in other major cities, such as Los Angeles and Boston, with similar success.

Controversies and Criticisms of the Broken Windows Theory

Despite its widespread adoption and apparent success in reducing crime rates, the Broken Windows Theory has faced significant criticism. One of the primary concerns is that the focus on minor offenses can lead to over-policing and the targeting of certain neighborhoods and communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged or marginalized. Critics argue that this approach disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, leading to an increase in negative interactions between these groups and law enforcement.

Another criticism of the Broken Windows Theory is that it may contribute to a “zero tolerance” approach to policing, where even minor offenses are met with severe consequences. This can lead to strained relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, as people may feel that they are being unfairly targeted and punished for minor infractions.

Additionally, some researchers argue that the Broken Windows Theory does not take into account other factors that may contribute to a decrease in crime rates, such as economic growth, changes in demographics, or advances in technology. These critics suggest that the apparent success of the Broken Windows Theory in reducing crime may be due to a combination of these factors rather than solely the result of aggressive policing of minor offenses.

There is also debate among scholars about the validity of the theory itself. Some studies have found support for the Broken Windows Theory, demonstrating a link between disorder and crime, while others have found little to no evidence supporting the connection. This inconsistency in research findings has led to an ongoing debate about the true effectiveness of the Broken Windows Theory as a crime prevention strategy.

The Future of the Broken Windows Theory

In light of the controversies and criticisms surrounding the Broken Windows Theory, some cities, and law enforcement agencies have begun to reevaluate their approach to policing. Efforts have been made to strike a balance between maintaining order and addressing quality-of-life issues without over-policing or unfairly targeting specific communities.

For instance, some police departments have introduced “community policing” strategies, which focus on building positive relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. This approach emphasizes cooperation and collaboration with community members to identify and address the root causes of crime and disorder. By involving the community in the problem-solving process, police departments hope to create a more equitable and effective crime prevention strategy.

Another potential direction for the future of the Broken Windows Theory is the integration of technology and data-driven policing. By using data analysis and predictive analytics, law enforcement agencies can better understand crime patterns and allocate resources more effectively. This approach may help to address concerns about over-policing and ensure that law enforcement efforts are targeted towards areas and issues that are most likely to have a meaningful impact on crime reduction.


The Broken Windows Theory has had a significant impact on the field of criminology and the way that law enforcement agencies approach crime prevention. While the theory has been credited with helping to reduce crime in many cities around the world, it has also faced significant criticism for potentially contributing to the over-policing and targeting of disadvantaged or marginalized communities.

As our understanding of the complex relationship between disorder and crime continues to evolve, it is essential for law enforcement agencies to adapt their strategies to address the needs and concerns of the communities they serve. By striking a balance between maintaining order and promoting equity and collaboration, the Broken Windows Theory may continue to play a valuable role in shaping the future of crime prevention and community safety.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/06/2023

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