Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities

by George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles

The origin of broken windows theory was an article in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson about the link between disorder and serious crime. The term comes from an analogy: “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones… One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares.”

Wesley Skogan “established the causal links between disorder and serious crime—empirically verifying the ‘Broken Windows’ hypotheses. The results were published in 1990 as Disorder and Decline: Crime and the Spiral of Decay in American Neighborhoods.”

Skogan found that “regardless of ethnicity, class, or other characteristics, residents within a community or neighborhood generally concurred about what constituted disorder and how much disorder was present locally.” The disorderly behaviors most frequently reported are: “public drinking and lounging drunks; loitering youths and corner gangs; drug use; noisy neighbors; panhandling and harassment on the streets, especially when carried out by those apparently mentally ill; and street prostitution. Several forms of physical disorder were closely related to these disorderly behaviors: commercial sex shops; vandalism consisting of graffiti and damage to public spaces such as schools, bus shelters, street signs, and vending machines; accumulations of rubbish and refuse; and dilapidated and abandoned buildings.”

“Skogan found that disorder, both directly and as a precursor to crime, played an important role in neighborhood decline. By lowering community morale and giving the neighborhood a bad reputation throughout the city, disorder both in itself and through increased crime, undermined the stability of the local housing market: fearful residents moved out, and real estate values plunged. At the same time local businesses could not attract customers, and investment in the community plummeted. All of these factors contributed directly to decline and decay.”

The book includes a chapter on the history of policing in the United States in the 20th century. Around 1930 there was a shift from the neighborhood beat cop model to a centralized system of radio-dispatched patrol cars responding to crimes. “Alas, this model has failed dismally… because it does not recognize the links between disorder, fear, serious crime, and urban decay. And, the criminal justice system model has also failed because it ignores the role of citizens in crime prevention.”

The most interesting part of the book describes the various initiatives and challenges resulting in a major reduction in crime in New York City in early to mid-1990s.

“Lawlessness still reigned in the subway during the late 1980s. Panhandling, one of its most highly visible and intrusive signs, was endemic… Farebeating created an additional sense of lawlessness… Predators turned on tolltakers collecting tokens from the vaults, assaulting and robbing them. Estimated losses from the various fare scams and thefts ranged from $60 to $120 million a year, not to mention the indignation, demoralization, and fear that paying passengers and on-site transit staff felt.”

“In April 1990, William Bratton was recruited to lead the Transit Police Department (TPD).” Bratton saw “the three problems plaguing the subway—farebeating, disorder, and robbery—were in reality one problem, linked conceptually and sequentially. To deal with one was to deal with all three.”

“During the early days of the farebeating effort police discovered that a high percentage of those arrested for farebeating either were carrying illegal weapons or had warrants outstanding for their arrest on felony charges, many for crimes committed in the subway system. In certain neighborhoods, as many as one arrestee in ten was either wanted on a felony charge or carrying an illegal weapon.”

“Consequently, when action was taken against farebeaters, serious crime dropped. And consequently also, police morale soared—they really could make a difference. Soon the farebeating-disorder-robbery trilogy was adopted by line police officers as part of a single effort.”

This is a remarkable case-in-point that restoring order reduces crime: “Since the institution of an aggressive order-maintenance strategy, felonies have declined 75 percent and robberies 64 percent… in New York’s subways… Transit Police Department tactical changes were limited to targeting on farebeating and restoring order: no major anti-robbery or felony tactics were introduced.”

The success was not the result of police efforts alone. “The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s total commitment to order restoration, which included eliminating graffiti, ‘hardening’ (that is, making targets less accessible), assertion of civilian control over territory through the station managers program, as well as police efforts.”

One of the recurring challenges described in the book is federal lawsuits (against several police departments across the country) brought by advocates for the homeless challenging the constitutionality of local ordinances. The key lesson is that ordinances need to address specific behaviors rather than economic status.

An example with the New York subway was a rule against obstructing. “It was sufficiently vague both to invite legal challenges, and to trouble line officers charged with enforcing it… What about someone who set his luggage on the platform, inadvertently blocking movement? Was this person obstructing and therefore deserving of police attention?”

“The problem was not really obstructing, but lying down… The rules that were finally adopted for enforcement prohibited acts such as applying graffiti, farebeating or tampering with fare collection boxes and turnstiles, solicitation, begging and panhandling, drinking alcoholic beverages or entering a transit facility or conveyance while unable to function safely due to the influence of alcohol or drugs, littering, urinating outside provided facilities, and lying down on a floor, platform, or stairway, or blocking free movement in such locations. Soliciting for licensed charities, public speaking, leafleting, and other speech-related activities were permissible in certain locations where they would pose no threat to the safety of transit system users.”

The authors chronicle Bratton’s continued use of order maintenance strategies to reduce crime after he was hired as NYPD commissioner by newly-elected mayor Giuliani in 1994. They also examine disorder and crime in San Francisco, Seattle, and Baltimore.

This book was published in 1997. Twenty years later, a City Journal article reported that the New York city council “has decriminalized crimes of disorder by mandating civil instead of criminal summonses for many of them, resulting in no criminal record and no arrest warrant if you don’t show up in court” thus eliminating significant “or else” leverage for law enforcement. Sounds like a giant step backwards.

Note: This book refers to broken windows theory. This should not to be confused with the broken windows fallacy, a parable by 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat which illustrates that money spent to recover from destruction is not actually a net benefit to society, given the principle of opportunity cost.

Kelling, George L., and Catherine M. Coles. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Buy from

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