Broken Window Crime Theory

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"Broken Window Crime Theory"
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The “Broken Windows” theory is based on the idea that disorderly behaviour breeds bad behaviour and fixing it at its basic level can help prevent crime. It concerns the prevention of minor disorder before it can escalate into major crime and promotes the idea of respectable neighbourhoods to help do this. It is therefore both a criminological theory and a sociological (social control) theory.

Linked with a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to crime and disorder, the “Broken Windows” theory  bases its criminological perspective on a conservative attitude to crime and punishment, which links it neatly with a ‘zero tolerance’ approach. This approach inspired policy of police forces in England in the 1990s and, more widely recognised, New York City’s Mayor, Rudi Giuliani, to tackle the city’s high crime rate.

“Broken Windows” was explained in an article which was first published by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. It is based on the following idea:

‘Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.’

The theory suggests that if small problems are tackled, such as minor graffiti, vandalism, or, as the title of the article suggested, broken windows, then it would stop the escalation into larger problems caused by anti-social behaviour and serious crime. In short, preventing minor infringements of the law will prevent complete eventual complete lawlessness.

In 1969, Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, reported on some experiments testing the “Broken Window” theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by "vandals" within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family – father, mother, and young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began: windows were smashed, parts were torn off and the upholstery was ripped; children even began to use the car as a playground. What struck the psychologists was that the majority of the adult "vandals" were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites.

In contrast, the car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the "vandals" appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

This indicated something important for criminologists, psychologists and those working in crime prevention – if there is a sense of ownership instilled in the community, crime is less likely to occur. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx – its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of "no one caring" – vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that destructive behaviour is negative. In contrast, vandalism can occur anywhere once these communal barriers – the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility – are lowered by actions that seem to signal that "no one cares."

The theory of “Broken Windows” suggests that confronting and preventing minor disorder will prevent serious crime. An example is to use patrolling community policemen as a visible way of preventing disorder which in the long-term will prevent the serious crime from taking place.


More recent research doubts the evidence that there is such a strong relationship between disorder and serious crime. Indeed, where there may be serious disorder, there is no strong evidence that it leads to serious crime. In short, it appears that Wilson and Kelling overstated the strength of this relationship and the impact of minor disorder on the development of serious crime.

Secondly, there is mixed evidence about Zero Tolerance approaches to crime and disorder. Some evidence suggests that where Zero Tolerance approaches have been adopted, there is no impact on the level of serious crime; while minor disorder may have been lowered, serious crime has remained relatively stable.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that tackling minor disorder, as suggested by the “Broken Windows” theory, will only impact on levels of certain crimes. To have a greater impact on reducing all levels of crime necessitates an integrated and consistent policy of policing coupled with other features such as population size, demographic breakdown and even social policy.

Yet despite these criticisms, “Broken Windows” has value in its process of the identification of problems and can help to produce more of a holistic, multi-agency approach to crime prevention. There currently is no general theory of crime which will prevent all criminal behaviour in one swoop, but the “Broken Windows” theory at least recognises social and environmental factors as affecting crime and in this sense can also have - and has had - a greater social impact.

More about this author: Ben Hughes

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