Broken Windows.


The theory of broken windows, first articulated by Wilson and Kelling (1982) and developed further by Kelling and Coles (1996; Kelling 1998), is behind many community justice approaches. The broken windows theory assumes that minor disorder, if not taken seriously and attacked, will increase fear of crime, decrease informal social control, and increase crime. Social incivilities (public  urination and drunkenness, drug use, prostitution, loitering teens, and panhandling) and physical incivilities (vacant buildings, empty lots, junk and trash, graffiti, and abandoned cars) contribute to the deterioration of communities. There are variants of the disorder or incivilities thesis, but broken windows especially has influenced policies of community policing (see Taylor 1999b).

There is evidence that high levels of disorder are related with high levels of crime. Kelling and Coles (1996) refer to Skogan's (1990) work as a proof of the broken windows theory, since his study of decline and disorder in American neighborhoods showed a relationship among disorder, crime, and deterioration, the consequence of which is a downward spiral of neighborhood decay. However, some have questioned Skogan's study and suggest that his data do not support the findings (e.g., Harcourt 1998) or refer to other studies that do not show links between incivilities and crime (e.g., Greene and Taylor 1988). Others have pointed out that the broken windows theory badly confuses means and ends when community disorder is identified both as the social cause and the effect of crime (e.g., Crawford 1998), not to mention the potential for abuse of power and racial discrimination in implementations (e.g., Livingston 1997).

Skogan's study (1990) can at best support half of the broken windows theory--the downward spiral of neighborhood decline. Nothing suggests that targeting low-level, quality-of-life crimes by police, prosecutors, and courts is the only, the most appropriate, or the best way to stop a downward cycle or produce an upward spiral to neighborhood revitalization. As Skogan himself acknowledged, "One of the 'iron laws' of policy evaluation is that, the more we know about a program, the less confidence we have in it" (Skogan 1990, p. 18). He was also concerned about the consequences of order maintenance policing: constitutionality dangers in street sweeps and roadblocks, virtually unchecked discretion of patrol officers, and abrasive effects on residents of poor, minority neighborhoods.

Recently, there is more reason to doubt whether the main premise--disorder increases fear, crime, and deterioration--is correct after all. Taylor (1999a) reports on a study that followed conditions in thirty neighborhoods in Baltimore in 1981, 1982, and 1994. By 1994, physical conditions had worsened significantly, yet there were few changes between 1981 and 1994 in citizens' fear of crime or perception of disorder, amount of crime, or neighborhood decline. Although the research teams expected something else, residents did not report more incivilities, they were no more fearful, increased disorder did not alter or increase crime, and neighborhoods did not experience structural decline (Taylor 1999b). The study warned against community policing and prosecution efforts that concentrate heavily on zero-tolerance policies or fixing physical problems--the premise of these methods has been exaggerated, they have been overused, and they have overshadowed other problem-solving and community-oriented strategies.

Nevertheless, zero-tolerance, order maintenance, and heavy street-level enforcement policing continue to be popular. The broken windows theory has influenced community prosecution and community court approaches that emphasize attacking nuisance or quality-of-life crimes. The question remains, whether dispersing, arresting, and punishing homeless, drunk, poor, mentally ill, or loitering people is the right response to the social conditions of poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, and general apathy that are related to crime and deterioration of American inner-city neighborhoods.


From Leena Kurki, Restorative and Community Justice in the United States, 2000

27 Crime & Just. 235

Zero tolerance policing


Compelling evidence for the effectiveness of policing in reducing crime comes from two cases: New York and Ray Mallon in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.  Both cases are associated with what is called ‘zero tolerance’ policing.  That term is unavoidable but unsatisfactory - as one of its chief practitioners, Bill Bratton, has observed.  ‘Zero tolerance’ is intolerant only of the intolerable, not of the wishes and rights of law-abiding citizens.


In 1982, the American academics James Q. Wilson and George Kelling advanced their "Broken Windows" theory of policing.  It has become known as "zero tolerance" policing in that it advocates intolerance of all types of crime rather than only the most serious.


Their thesis was that the police had concentrated on crime but forgotten about order.  They had ceased regular foot patrols, ignored community policing and systematically failed to act against minor criminal or sub-criminal activities - like begging, prostitution, vandalism, drug-taking and drunken rowdiness - which degraded neighbourhoods.  As a consequence more serious criminals had been able to take over the streets and open spaces of cities.


Part of their argument was that bad behaviour that went unchecked would lead to the breakdown of the order naturally enforced by communities: "A stable neighbourhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in ...even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle." 


The alternative strategy is for the police to take responsibility for responding decisively to criminal conduct and sub-criminal neighbourhood disorder.  The aim is to take back from criminals and perpetrators of petty offences the control of public spaces and return it to people who are respectful of the rights of others.  Public spaces will return to being socially peacable and salubrious environments.




Police reform based on "broken windows" and zero tolerance is about introducing practices which lead to falls in crime across the board - all offences, in all areas of town.  An effective crime-redution strategy should bring benefits for everyone. 


Areas where incomes are high suffer from lower crime rates on average.  Conversely, the poorest areas suffer the highest crime rates.




The correlation between the poorest boroughs in London and their high rates of crime shows that because people living in deprived areas are more likely to be victims of crime, they are also the greatest beneficiaries of reforms which reduce crime levels.  In New York in the decade after the introduction of zero tolerance policing, crime fell in the notoriously violent and deprived borough of the Bronx by over two-thirds.  Order was restored to the City as a whole, not just the areas tourists visited. 

- Andrew Stuttaford, National Review, 3 August 2005