Broken Windows Theory: Implications on Criminal Justice


In 1982 George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson introduced their famous broken windows theory, explaining the emergence of serious crimes through disorder in the community. According to it, local disorders such as profanity, public intoxication, litter, graffiti and resident’s apathy creates ideal circumstances for an increase in serious violent crimes. (Kelling & Wilson, as cited in Jefferson, 2016). In other words, if the residents cannot uphold the positive appearance of their neighborhood in relatively minor matters, their community is likely to descend into a downward spiral of severe crime. The disorder leads to fear; fear creates disengagement and a sense of apathy, which in turn results in a surge of crime. The rising crime rates and overall decline eventually lead to a mass exodus from the community, as everyone who can do so tries to flee from the depressing environment (Konkel et al., 2019). The theory became popular among law enforcers and policymakers, who attempted to utilize it in practice in troubled communities.

New York City was one of the pioneers in the broad implementation of the broken windows theory. In 1994 New York’s mayor Rudolph Giuliani and NYPD initiated a police reform, which shifted the department’s focus from serious crimes to local disorders in problematic areas (Kelling and Bratton, as cited in Jefferson, 2016). Police Strategy No.5 targeted “lower grade offences” and symbols of disorder such as beggars, loiterers, visibly mentally ill persons, sex workers, and graffiti writers (Jefferson, 2016). Mayor Michael Bloomberg expanded this campaign even further: operations “Clean Sweep” (2002), “Spotlight” (2002), “Impact” (2003) and “High Housing” (2004) targeted public alcohol and marijuana users and deployed extra police officers (Jefferson, 2016). The broken windows theory served as a prominent framework for all these actions. In theory, addressing the local issues would have improved New York’s appearance and positively affect the criminal justice system by reducing the number of serious crimes.

Nowadays, the broken windows theory is being criticized on multiple levels. For example, Kamalu and Onyeozili (2018) argue that broken windows policing has significant negative implications on a societal level. Firstly, it diverts significant resources from social programs like drug treatment and education to incarcerations and jail maintenance. In other words, strict law enforcement aggressively treats symptoms rather than the problem itself. Secondly, its uncompromising approach to minor offences leads to general hostility towards the police and undermines public policing legitimacy. As a result, community residents start to see police officers as their enemies instead of protectors against the crime (Kamalu & Onyeozili, 2018). In some instances, community members from ethnic minorities can even characterize the broken windows approach to criminal justice as “racialized rudeness, rough treatment and abuse” (Fisher, as cited in Jefferson, 2016). Therefore, the purpose of this essay lies in evaluating the effectiveness of broken windows theory and its implications on the criminal justice system on the community level.

Broken Windows Theory: Issue Identification

The broken windows theory has brought intense controversy in local communities across the U.S. Racialized police violence became a theme of heated discussions on the national level, and the broken windows theory is often related to police brutality cases (Jefferson, 2016). However, it is not being replaced with less controversial law enforcement policing but spreads in other U.S. cities, and even the other countries employ American experience. According to Jefferson (2016), the broken windows approach has been replicated in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Essen (Germany), London and Glasgow (United Kingdom), Tokyo (Japan), and many other cities and communities all over the world. Moreover, in 2014 the majority of New Yorkers supported the broken windows approach to law enforcement, including 57% of Black and 64% of Hispanic respondents (Jefferson, 2016). The policy showed surprising resilience despite a steady flow of controversial cases, mass protests and civilian discontent.

Therefore, the main issue of the broken windows theory within law enforcement is finding out its actual effectiveness and implications on community criminal justice. A researcher needs to understand the logic in relationships between community and law enforcement, the defendant’s psychology and patterns of thinking, and the respective perception of the community by its residents and the police. Obviously, there are must be solid arguments for widespread support of the seemingly controversial policing approach, especially if it becomes an international practice. The methods of dealing with controversial aspects within the broken windows theory framework also present interest. It is challenging to make any conclusions or provide recommendations without conducting a proper analysis of the subject. Overall, the issue of the broken windows theory in community policing and criminal justice seems to be complex and demands an all-rounded consideration.

Broken Windows Theory: Background

The broken windows theory and corresponding community policing measures were developed in the 80s and 90s, but their origins can be traced back to the early 40s. Shaw and Mckay pointed argued that the residents of visibly neglected communities may be less unable to articulate the strategies of social control (as cited in Konkel et al., 2019). Such a situation led to the constant coming and going of the residents with low social and psychological investment into the community and consequent increase in offences. About 40 years later, Kelling and Wilson expanded this idea into a broken windows theory. They have provided two possible pathways of disorder provoking criminal behavior. The first pathway, which describes a direct effect of disorder on crime, is reflected in the allegory: a broken window serves as a symbol of unchecked delinquency (O’Brien et al., 2018). The second pathway is indirect, as disorder makes the residents retreat from the public life of their community and eventually let it collapse.

Several years later, the theory attracted the attention of law enforcement and criminal justice officials in troubled communities. In 1990, Willam J. Bratton, the Police Commissioner of New York City, instituted it under the name of “zero-tolerance” policing (Kamalu & Onyeozili, 2018). Over the years, New York’s experience was copied by the other American cities under different names. For instance, Albuquerque implemented a “safe streets” program and Lowell — a “hot spots” technique, which strongly reminded New York’s policing measures. The broken windows theory would spread overseas, as a study by Keizer, Lindenberg and Steg (2008, as cited in Kamalu & Onyeozili, 2018), seemingly proved a correlation between disorder and increasing delinquent behavior. However, other researchers had claimed, that Kelling, Wilson and their supporters overestimated the impact of disorder and underestimated the other neighborhood’s characteristics, such as poverty, racial composition, and residential stability (Konkel et al., 2019). The question of the broken windows theory effectiveness and implications on criminal justice remained largely debatable by our time.

Broken Windows Theory: Analysis

It has been stated in the previous sections that the question of the broken windows theory actual effectiveness and implications on criminal justice is up for debate. The problem is complicated and requires a multi-layered analysis for sufficient understanding. Firstly, it is necessary to acquire deeper knowledge about the community’s perception among its residents and law enforcement officials. Secondly, it is important to realize how the relationships between the community residents and law enforcement officials can be viewed from the perspective of criminal law. And only after performing all these steps will it be possible to judge the effectiveness of the broken windows theory and provide recommendations or suggestions for policing.

Perception of Community

The broken windows theory can be viewed as a proactive policing means of curbing crime since it focuses on eliminating possible causes of criminal behavior. Therefore, it theoretically serves for increasing the feeling of safety and promotion of general well-being of the residents (Stein & Griffith, 2017). Ideally, the police officers and the residents should cooperate with each other, so the policing framework could adopt the police officer’s perception of the community and the actual needs of the neighborhood. In practice, the residents of the neighborhoods with high crime rates are the most resistant and mistrustful to criminal justice policing because they treat the police officers as outsiders (Stein & Griffith, 2017). Data provided by Kamalu and Onyeozili (2018) shows that more than 80% of the New York City residents stopped by police officers between 2002 and 2015 were innocent. Such indiscriminate law enforcing efforts can cause hostility towards the police and hamper criminal justice policing in the community.

On the other hand, the officers who follow the strict zero-tolerance guidelines set by the broken windows theory might develop a distorted perspective of the neighborhood and overreact to minor offences. The misaligned perception of a community as more problematic than it is may cause the difference in views on crime prevention between the police and the residents (Stein & Griffith, 2017). In theory, it can even lead to situations when covering up a minor offense is preferable to calling the police. The residents would be too scared to call the police and choose to not interfere, or in the worst-case scenario, would try to serve justice by themselves.

Punishment and Wrongdoing

Criminal law has various functions, and crime prevention or punishment for criminal offences is one of the most notable among them. In the broken windows theory case, one might see a transition of behavioral and socioeconomic concept into a category within the criminal law. Community policing based on the theory seeks to eliminate disorder and minor offences to prevent the surge of serious crimes. There is nothing wrong with seeing criminal law as a punishing institution; however, it would be wrong to limit criminal law only to punishment (Simester, 2021). In that regard, community policing based on the broken windows theory steps into the dangerous territory since it relies on the punishment of responsible for disorder above anything else.

Such an approach can be harmful to the image of law enforcement bodies and community policing efforts alike. The wrongdoing principle in criminal law requires identifying the legally prohibited wrong that the defendant actually did (Simester, 2021). From the broken window theory’s perspective, people contributing to the disorder are morally wrong since they disrupt the community’s life. Therefore, preemptive actions against them, such as arrests on the streets or incarcerations, are justified. However, the residents of troubled communities often have a different perspective, which law enforcers do not consider. Community residents can even consider certain behavior normative or non-threatening. (Harcourt, as cited in Konkel et al., 2019). As a result, the residents become mistrustful, the officers resort to unnecessarily harsh actions, and the animosity between the police and the neighborhood’s population grows.

The biggest irony about the broken windows theory is that it is based on a correlation established on a single experiment. Kelling and Wilson founded their theory on Zimbardo’s car experiment, in which a car abandoned in a poor neighborhood with a predominantly black population was quickly stripped for spare parts (Konkel et al., 2019). On the contrary, the car left in a standard neighborhood with mostly white residents did not attract attention until the researchers deliberately damaged it. Quite obviously, that disorder in the neighborhood could not be the only reason for such different outcomes. Moreover, it could have had very little relevance, and the residents’ living standards could have been a more important factor.

Therefore, the broken windows theory can be considered a behavioral hypothesis with an implied outcome rather than a solid pattern. In regard to the criminal justice system, it seems to have quite dangerous implications since it diverts the time and resources of police officers and causes animosity between them and the community residents. The broken windows community policing puts extreme pressure on the officers and forces them to perform punitive actions, which often worsen their public image and breeds mutual mistrust. To mitigate these issues, police departments can switch the focus to curbing serious crimes, sharing community policing with the residents, and implementing multicultural awareness programs for the officers. After all, the broken windows theory is not harmful per se; it is better suited for matters outside the criminal justice field.


Jefferson, B. J., (2016). Broken windows policing and constructions of space and crime: Flatbush, Brooklyn. Antipode, 48(5), 1270–1291. Web.

Konkel, R. H., Ratkowski, D., & Tapp, S. N. (2019). The effects of physical, social, and housing disorder on neighborhood crime: A contemporary test of broken windows theory. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 8(12), 583. Web.

Kamalu, N. C., & Onyeozili, E. C. (2018). A critical analysis of the ‘broken windows’ policing in New York City and its impact: Implications for the criminal justice system and the African American community. African Journal of Criminology & Justice Studies, 11(1), 71–94.

O’Brien, D. T., Farrell, C., & Welsh, B. C. (2019). Looking through broken windows: The impact of neighborhood disorder on aggression and fear of crime is an artifact of research design. Annual Review of Criminology, 2, 53–71. Web.

Simester, A. (2021). Fundamentals of criminal law: Responsibility, culpability, and wrongdoing. Oxford University Press, USA.

Stein, R. E., & Griffith, C. (2017). Resident and police perceptions of the neighborhood: Implications for community policing. Criminal justice policy review, 28(2), 139–154. Web.

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LawBirdie. "Broken Windows Theory: Implications on Criminal Justice." April 15, 2023.