Broken Windows Theory originated from a 1982 article in Atlantic Monthly written by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson. The basic idea was that when there is some form of environmental decay, such as broken windows, it gives the impression that the neighbourhood or area is uncared for. In turn, this leads to an increase in crime, especially petty crime such as graffiti or further damage to property. Subsequently, the more decay, the greater the increase and severity of crime and the greater likelihood that social cohesion itself will also break down.
Kelling & Wilson’s article draws upon a 1969 psychology experiment into human behaviour by Philip Zimbardo (the same Zimbardo who did the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment). Although the psychology element here is of no particular concern in this article, Zimbardo nonetheless had turned his attention to vandalism and the mindless destruction of property along with its associated costs.
Zimbardo ran “A Field Experiment on “Auto-Shaping”” to observe vandalism in action. He bought two cars and left one in upmarket Palo Alto in California and one in the Bronx area of New York. As observed:
What happened in New York was unbelievable! Within ten minutes the 1959 Oldsmobile received its first auto strippers—a father, mother, and eight-year-old son. The mother appeared to be a lookout, while the son aided the father’s search of the trunk, glove compartment, and motor. He handed his father the tools necessary to remove the battery and radiator. Total time of destructive contact: seven minutes.
After three days of observation, Zimbardo concluded that the vehicle left in the Bronx had been targeted 23 times leaving the vehicle a complete wreck. Most of the vandalism happened during the day and was perpetrated by “clean-cut whites” who seemingly had the appearance of responsible citizens. On the other hand:
In startling contrast, the Palo Alto car not only emerged untouched, but when it began to rain, one passerby lowered the hood so that the motor would not get wet!
Order vs. Disorder
Kelling & Wilson’s article is very much premised on a dichotomy of order versus disorder. One of the problems here is the idea of what constitutes order and what constitutes disorder especially when Kelling & Wilson argue that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked in a kind of developmental sequence”. It seems that they believe order to be what is normal for a specific neighbourhood. This creates a problem where every neighbourhood has a different normal. Further, the use of the term “developmental sequence” seems to suggest small offences inevitably lead to more serious crime. Thus, without addressing minor disorder, more serious problems will inevitably occur. It is a similar argument to that of drug use whereby it is claimed that if a person starts with a soft drug, they will inevitably turn to hard drugs. This could be seen as a slippery slope fallacy.
In the 1990’s, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani began a new zero tolerance initiative reportedly on the logic of Broken Windows Theory. Through a heavy crackdown on minor offences such as drunkenness, graffiti, and even jaywalking, the New York police were credited with a 37% drop in crime over three years (Bratton, 1998: 29-43). On the surface, this seems to indicate a success. However, similar reductions in crime rates were also seen across other major U.S. cities around the same time but utilising much different policing methods.
Wacquant (2009b: 265) noted that zero tolerance action was targeted towards those already dispossessed and living in dispossessed districts. Rather than being the restoration of order as theorised by Kelling & Wilson, it was actually a “concentration of police and penal repression” that accounted for the drop in crime. Wacquant also argues that this repression was not linked to any criminological theory and that Broken Windows Theory was actually discovered after the fact and used to mask repressive police activities by presenting them as rational. Essentially, it was a form of punishing the poor.
Broken Windows Theory has also been applied in other areas. Some of these areas are quite unexpected but include tourism (Liu et al., 2019), work environments (Ramos & Torgler, 2012), consumer behaviour (Guido et al., 2015), and education (Kelly, 2017). Shipley & Bowker (2014: 379) also consider Broken Windows Theory as it applies to internet crime.
The internet is made up of innumerable communities just like the outside world. When online communities are not policed to maintain order, disorder and therefore crime begin to manifest. We could perhaps view this kind of application of Broken Windows Theory to the infamous 4Chan website. Over time, 4Chan grew from a kind of alternative community to being one of the most infamous producers of trouble on the internet. This trouble manifested from low-level trolling to major harassment campaigns as well as other more illegal content. It is important to note that it is individuals in the community who acted in this way but the Broken Windows argument would have it that this is due to lack of policing and orderliness. Individual actions however, bring us to some of the criticisms of Broken Windows Theory.
As Risjord (2014: 130) notes, Broken Windows Theory seems to command a response which demands that areas of decay should be cleaned up and that this itself would then deter crime. However, Risjord argues that “broken windows don’t steal purses”. In other words, investing in the visual quality of an area will make no difference as it is the behaviour of the individual which is the true source of order or disorder. Unless the behaviours and attitudes of those who commit petty crime are turned away from such actions, then nothing is going to change.
Loic Wacquant (2009b: 15) also describes how the conservative-aligned broken windows approach to crime was in fact a “pseudo-criminological alibi for the reorganisation of police work”. Through adopting a punitive approach to crime and masking it behind the veneer of theoretical respectability, it would in turn also be a vote winner amongst the middle and upper classes.
Kelling & Wilson’s original article, like many conservative approaches, widely ignores many other possibilities which could contribute to crime such as:
- Mental health issues
This in itself creates a logical issue. These contributors to the causes of crime are ignored which suggests on the one hand that responsibility for crime is therefore located within the individual committing the crime. And yet, on the other hand, it is suggested that some broken windows can encourage crime. Ultimately, the source of crime become logically unlocatable. As such, how does one target the sources of crime?
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