Jatin Bishnoi

The Theory of Broken Windows: Evolution and Influence on Crime

This article is written by Jatin Bishnoi, a Fourth Year B.A. LL.B (Hons.) Student at Ideal Institute of Management and Technology (GGSIPU), Delhi.

“Every unattended broken window in a neighbourhood building invites the attraction of criminals, by the thought of carelessness and negligence on the part of the neighbours. And eventually leads one to breaking off more windows which may be left unattended like the first one, leading the one to commit more serious crimes.” The dynamic nature of crime has arguably never ceased to boggle the minds of the administration. The author analyzes the “Theory of Broken Windows” as stated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, which sheds light on vigilante methods by targeting the origin of every criminal activity with the help of examples.


Criminology states that if a single window in a building is broken in a particular neighborhood and is left unattended, it directly sends a signal that no one cares, breaking more windows costs nothing and sooner or later, the rest of the windows will be broken. This theory denotes that unattended signs of crime and civil disorder create an environment that encourages further serious crimes.

The Broken Windows Theory is categorized as a criminological theory that advances policing methods targeting minor crimes such as jaywalking, public drinking,  loitering, vandalism and fare evasion help to create a sociological order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes. The strategy implied according to the theory was to address the problems when they are small, as in repairing the broken windows in a desirably short period(day or weak), general awareness against consequences of the commission of minor crimes which results in the least escalation of further major crimes.

Theoretical Explanation

The theory indicates that a broken window sends a message to the criminals that the neighborhood is unable to defend itself against any criminal invasion as it lacks the will to implicate social order and responsibility. In the actual sense, the broken window is of less significance than the message it sends, which is that the community portrays itself as defenseless and vulnerable as the residents lack a stable and asserting state of society against crime. Unlike such communities, the healthy ones present a cohesive and assertive state of social responsibility by taking care of the output through such meager steps of repairing broken windows and effectively gaining control over their space.

The concept of the positive general appearance of a neighborhood also sends a message of least or zero crime tolerance to potential criminals.

The theory thus makes a few major claims that improving the quality of the neighborhood environment reduces petty crime, infringements, and dereliction which results in the prevention of major crimes. The theory implies that including aggressive order maintenance practices in the policing methods would result in a gradual decrease in the crime rate. The theory further postulates that the prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who are convinced that the area is unsafe. This weakens the social control on the community that kept the criminals in check. This later becomes a cycle between disorder and crime, resulting in the gradual increase of both.

Evolution of the Theory

The Broken Windows Theory was proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. As the name suggests, the theory uses broken windows as a metaphor of incivility and disorder within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crimes. It was further popularized in the 1990s by the New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose policing policies were influenced by the theory. In 1985 New York City Transit Authority hired George Kelling as a consultant, who was also later hired by Boston and Los Angeles Police Departments. The implementation of theory led to many successful campaigns to rid the New York Subway System of graffiti, and the New York Police Department of fare evasion, faster arrestee processing methods and background checks on all those arrested. The theory was highly supported by Wesly Skogan, a political scientist, who in his work concluded that certain serious crimes were the consequences of social and physical disorder.

In his book, Oscar Newman talks about defensible space theory. He argues that policing methods target crime prevention, though the authority is not adequate practice to achieve the objective of a crime-free community. People themselves have to step in and participate by coordinating with the authorities. Unlike which, they prefer to only care and protect for the spaces they feel invested in,


Critics dispute the broken windows theory, despite successful crime reduction by implying innovative policing methods from the theory itself. David Thacher, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, claimed that the broken windows theory is completely based on the interdependency of disorder and crime, that further results in a cause and effect relationship between the same by quoting  “Social science has not been kind to the broken windows theory. A number of scholars reanalyzed the initial studies that appeared to support it… Others pressed forward with new, more sophisticated studies of the relationship between disorder and crime..

An article in the Economic and Political Weekly, C. R. Sridhar challenges the policing methods implied from the theory of broken windows. He claimed that the strategy implemented concerning the theory was targeting the areas of the significant amount of crime which resulted in a decrease in crime rate. Later he added that consequential circumstances of major events like New York City’s Economic Boom in the 1990s created a perfect scenario that decreased the crime rate more effectively than the policing methods from the broken windows theory.


The theory after multiple evaluations and reanalysis failed to present the link between crime and disorder. Which is the foundation of the theory. Though attention to the link between disorder and crime, in general, may not be enlightening and be loosely connected. Conclusively, owing to the fact that specific acts may reflect a specific state of disorder.

Therefore, the validity of the theory is unknown, and a companion or supporting theories are necessary to completely explain crime. Secondly, a complex model with further modifications is needed to successfully cover all the cogent factors.

Theorists believe that fear of crime and disorder in a neighborhood creates fear in the minds of residents of that particular area, hence they desire to move to a more orderly and hospitable community or locality. Though this option is open to only the residents that can afford to re-accommodate themselves. This further suggests that the next wave of the disorderly will prevail and the neighborhood dynamics may hit an economic bend.