July 7, 2021

Broken Windows Theory (The Gateway to Civil Disorder?)

By Katelyn Redfoot

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Have you ever been traveling in your car and driven through a neighborhood where all you could seem to notice were buildings with broken windows and graffiti? It’s possible there were some abandoned cars, too, as well as some litter on the sidewalk, and all of these factors led you to deem that area unsafe. You did not have the slightest impression that anyone in that neighborhood cared or maintained a thing. And you made all of these assessments without actually knowing anything about that neighborhood – it was all based on appearance. But were you wrong to make this assessment? Not necessarily. Not according to the broken windows theory.

What is the Broken Windows Theory?

The broken windows theory states that signs of disorder will lead to more disorder. It concludes that visible signs of misbehavior and disorder in a particular environment, whether a neighborhood, workplace, or school, further encourage more disorder and misbehavior, which can then lead to more serious crimes.

Of course, the broken windows are merely a metaphor, although they are a common visible sign of disorder and what literally inspired the broken windows theory. Broken windows, according to the theory, can represent any sign of disorder in an environment that is left unattended, which could include everything from drunken and disorderly conduct to smaller crimes and acts of vandalism.

To paraphrase a quote by George Kelling, a criminologist who co-created the broken windows theory, to help you understand the theory better and how it might lead to civil disorder, imagine a building with some broken windows. When those windows do not get repaired, there is a tendency for more vandals to come and break more because those unrepaired windows are a signal to them that nobody cares. They may eventually break into this building because it appears unoccupied to them. If unoccupied, the vandals may start squatting there. They may start lighting fires inside. They will leave trash behind, and it will accumulate to the point that other people may start leaving trash there as well. And the abandoned cars there, as you recalled earlier, are there because they have been broken into.

Who came up with the Broken Windows Theory?

Kelling, along with James Wilson, defined the broken windows theory in 1982. The theory was created based on research by a Stanford University psychologist named Philo Zimbardo, who argued that it did not matter how rich or poor a neighborhood was – one broken window would soon lead to many more broken windows.

Are broken windows the gateway to civil disorder?

When Kelling and Wilson first published the broken windows theory, they explained their hypothesis that smaller crimes and vandalism normalized larger crimes. The only thing is this assertion was not fully supported yet by research.

After their theory became popularized in an issue of The Atlantic magazine in 1982, politicians began advocating policies (“broken windows policies”) because it happened to be a time when crime rates were through the roof. Leaders advocated policies to increase policing of petty crimes, including graffiti, public drinking, and fare evasion. Following what they understood of the broken windows theory, they tried to prevent and minimize major crimes, including violence.

The most noteworthy implementation of the theory was by Rudolf Giuliani, the New York City mayor during the late ’90s. The research reported in 2000 claimed that more than 60,000 crimes between 1989 and 1998 had been evaded in New York City as a result of the broken window theory. Despite the research and noteworthy decrease in civil disorder, there remained critics of the theory who disagreed.

How well have broken windows policies continued to work?

It has been noted that repairing broken windows, in a literal and metaphorical sense, can benefit the economy and daily lives of the people who live in well-tended neighborhoods that were once poor and unkept. When there are green spaces, parks, libraries, and community gardens created and maintained, particularly where there once were vacant lots and broken infrastructures in low-income areas, it exemplifies how the broken windows theory has led to neighborhoods that are more welcoming and make residents feel safer.

It is always possible that in these cases, the increase in the socialization in these areas, along with the other positive impacts, leads to less civil disorder. But it all depends on how the theory is implemented.

George Kelling once claimed that the theory was often being misapplied. Eventually, police policies escalated to “zero tolerance” policies, particularly in minority neighborhoods where individuals were frisked, leading to an increase in police misconduct complaints. Zero tolerance policing means allotting predetermined consequences regardless of the context or severity of a crime; this is shown to be particularly harmful in school settings when it comes to vulnerable, minority youth. Not to mention the increase in aggressive policing practices that impairs relationships between the community and police, which remains an issue today.

Is it the broken windows that lead to civil disorder or the broken windows theory?

As long as the theory is implemented based on the way it was intended to be understood, the theory can help reduce crime because broken windows are an example of problem-oriented policing. So, when there are specific problems in a neighborhood or school, it can lead to proactive policing strategies and solutions.

No matter how you look at it in terms of crime, the broken windows theory not only explains how disorder leads to disorder but how disorder in a neighborhood increases fear among its residents. When this happens, it leads them to withdraw from their community and decrease participation in informal social control, which is critical because these individuals and groups are needed to bring about conformity to laws and norms. In this way, it is the broken windows that can also indirectly impact civil disorder. As Wilson said, “one unrepaired window is a signal that nobody cares, and so breaking more windows cost nothing.” The theory was never meant to cause more damage – it was meant for people to recognize and benefit from the value of living in a neighborhood where windows are repaired.


Katelyn Redfoot

Katelyn Redfoot is an independent content writer based in North Carolina who offers ghostwriting, copywriting, blogging, and social media services. As a health and wellness advocate, she loves learning from and helping clients across the world share creative, relatable, and helpful content. Her goal is soon to take her writing on the road, traveling in a van with her fiance, Jason, and their dogs, Max and Summit.

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