January 25, 2008

Broken Windows

author_brad By Bradley Wright

A funny thing happens in our kitchen sink. Sometimes it doesn’t have any dirty dishes in it (okay, not that often, but it does happen). When the sink is empty, my family and I usually put our dishes straight into the dishwasher. At other times, however, there are dirty dishes sitting in the sink. When this happens, we all put any additional dishes straight into the sink, not even considering the extra several seconds it takes to put them into the dishwasher. Why in the world am I writing about my kitchen sink? It turns out that what happens with the sink is a reasonable analogy for one of the more important crime-prevention theories: the theory of broken windows.

The theory of broken windows originated from a 1982 article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in The Atlantic Monthly. They started with the idea that some broken windows in a building invite more broken windows. In their words:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.” 

“Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

According to Wilson and Kelling, the same holds true for neighborhoods and crime. Just as broken windows invite rocks, and dirty sinks get more dishes, so too certain characteristics of neighborhoods attract and promote crime. A neighborhood that is riddled with vandalism, litter, abandoned buildings and cars signals that no one is taking care of the neighborhood. A neighborhood that has lots of petty crime, such as public drunkenness, pickpockets, traffic violations, this signals that crime is accepted. In both cases the neighborhood is sending out a signal that crime is tolerated if not outright accepted. This encourages crime among residents of the neighborhood and it attracts criminals from other neighborhoods as well.

The importance of this theory is its implications for crime prevention. The way to cut down on crime in a given location, according to the broken window theory, is to change its physical and social characteristics. This can be done by repairing buildings, sidewalks, and roads, and fixing anything that makes a neighborhood look run down. It also means enforcing the law for even the smallest infractions. Police should ticket and/or arrest people for things as small as jaywalking, illegal panhandling, and public disorder. The logic is that by cracking down on small problems, the police are preventing more serious crimes.

The best known application of broken windows theory occurred in New York City, and depending on who you talk to, it was a smashing success in preventing crime, an irrelevant policy, or an invasion of individuals’ rights.

In 1993, Rudy Guiliani—a current presidential candidate—was elected mayor of New York City based on his “get tough on crime” platform. He hired William Bratton as the police chief. Bratton, who was heavily influenced by George Kelling, applied the clip_image002principles of broken windows theory. Bratton initiated a program of zero-tolerance in which the NYPD cracked down on all sorts of minor infractions, including subway fare dodging, public drinking urinating in public, and even the squeegee men—people who would wipe the windows of stopped cars and demand payment. A friend of mine who lived in New York City at that time even saw police telling people they could not sit on milk crates on the sidewalk-- apparently that was against the law as well.

Almost immediately rates of both petty and serious crimes dropped substantially. In the first year alone, murders were down 19% and car thefts fell by 15%, and crime continued to drop ever year for the following ten years.

So, was this application of broken windows an unqualified success? Some critics say no.

In the same time period, crime dropped significantly in other major cities around the country, cities that had not adopted broken windows policy. (See figure below). Crime dropped nationwide in the 1990s, and various reasons have been given for this overall crime drop. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was subsiding, and there were fewer people in the 15 to 25 year age group, which accounts for so much crime. As such, the declines seen in New York City did not result from new police policies but rather they would have happened anyway. 

clip_image002[8]

(The light blue line represents crime in Newark, NJ, purple Los Angles, red New York, and black the U.S. as a whole)

Other critics argue that regardless of the effectiveness of broken windows, it was too costly in terms of individual rights. They claim that the police, emboldened by the mandate to enforce even the smallest of laws, frequently crossed over into harassment of individuals, especially racial minorities and the poor. The application of broken windows, with its zeal for reducing crime, produced unacceptable police behavior.

Nonetheless, the results in New York City were sufficiently interesting that various police departments around the country have adopted principles of broken windows theory. In fact, William Bratton is now the police chief of Los Angeles.

P.S., this post shows that everydaysociologyblog.com covers everything of social importance, including the kitchen sink.

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Comments

Parents are told to set boundaries and to be constistant. Although the child may resist, the rules are in place for the child's benifit and for the benifit of the family as a whole.
Just the same goes for the individuals and society. We must step in and make a point of enforcing the law on a few so that the good of whole is kept in balance. The only problem with instilling trust and power in the police is when they have ulterior motives.

I hope next year to finally go back to school to pursue my doctorate in criminology and would like to do my research on order maintenance policies in urban settings. There are many legitimate criticisms of how this has been adopted in New York and elsewhere, but I still think the perception of order is a powerful multiplier in terms of reducing crime.
I appreciate the opportunity to read this entry on your blog as I get the impression that too many sociologists are more concerned with protecting existing sociological paradigms on causation of crime rather than seeking to integrate disorder into the sociological explanatory process for urban crime.

We need to make an expample out of the wrong that people do. With out inforcing rules people are free to do as they plase. small or large There are always going to be the ones who try the law but, they should are not any accuses for them doing wrong. When you busy yourself when do you have time to get in trouble.

It is my opinion that so many people do wrong because they know that the effect of their wrong will not really be that bad. I think that if people knew their negative actions would cause a severe effect on them they would probably refrain from doing the act more often than not.
I also feel that parents should step up and set good examples as well as train thier children up with high morals and perhaps doing so the child will grow up and have a consciousness about their actions and how it affects others.

I think that we have rules and laws for a reason. Its just some things you just dont do. People that commit crimes should think about their consequences before commiting a crime. There are consequences for every action. Crimes that some people commit can affect others in a major way. Some people need to start to thinking about others and not just themselves.

It would if the police presence was very strong in the city or a particular neighborhood. On some instances the Broken Windows program was a success, but on other parts of the program it kind of made people uncomfortable.

Punishment for breaking the law sometimes isn't harsh enough we hear all the time about the number of people in jail.I believe it because of so many repeat offenders.Many build relationships in jail or have friends already there so many times they dont care about going to jail.It kind of like a vacation or family reunion for some.

Yes, I do believe that if police enforced minor crimes that this would help to prevent more serious crimes. We are a people that take wrong to its very limits. We typically are only restrained as far as we fear getting caught and/or punished. Unless we have a sense of doing right for the sake of a clear conscience, we seem to be bent towards taking the crime for as far as we can go.

Seth Cardwell

I do think that by taking care of the minior problems will reduce more serious ones because people will see you are not playing about the laws. If the see you will not tolerate the minior problems they will not want to get into any big problems. Yes I do think broken windows was a success because it cut down on a lot, however I think we need to find another way to deal with problems in present day.

I think it depends on the people in the area as to whether the theory of broken windows will work or not. It might for some people because they may think twice before they do a big crime if they see people getting in trouble for small crimes. Others may go against it just because and may do more serious crimes as an outlet or a message to the police that they can do what they want.
I do think that the broken window theory was a success in New York. The crime rates dropped substantially and there weren't as many bigger crimes being committed.

The rules and laws that we have already have been set for many reasons. These are set to keep order, to ensure safety, to ensure security. A lot of crimes are committed by those who are to lazy to keep theirself busy doing good. And if someone commits crime on purpose they should be punished.

I think that if the police begin to start enforcing the "small" or less important laws that people will begin to pay more attention and see that the law is in fact paying more attention. Therefore it will more than likely cut down on the larger crimes. The "broken windows" analogy seemed to be a success because if an area looks uncared trashy, than society will continue to treat it the way it looks.

I think that broken windows would be a success. And I think it was. Unfortunatly, is debatable because crime decreased everywhere else. But I think it makes sense and would work. As far as did it work in New York, I believed it did make an impact.

I believe that the broken window theory was a success. That was not the only thing they did to clean up their streets. They relocated the homeless. They shut down the porno clubs and clean up the streets. NOT only did their crime went down but touristism increase. I believe more cities should adopt this strategy.

I do think that cracking down on small things helps the public community see that your not playing games, and then crime rates begin to lower, due to the fact that people know they will get into trouble. However, I believe that society and economic status play a role as well. This past several years people just act like they lost common sense, but it has been due to struggles and stress, losing jobs, and still having family and bills to pay they get more expensive by the day.

i believe the theory was beneficial and that other citys should try it!!

The theory in itself is beneficial. However, in some cases, there might arise problems with the police and the inhabitants in the city. The police might feel superior. Instead of focusing on a bigger problem, such as someone running the red light, the police might be focusing on someone jaywalking.

I beleive this thoery is beneficial. if an area looks trashy then most people consider it to be trashy and a bad neighborhood, whether it is or not. If the broken window theory was enforced everywhere, it may cut down on the big crimes.

In my opinion cracking down on minor crimes would in fact be effective in reducing other big crimes. Probably because that same person jaywalking is likely to commit a more serious crime. For example, if he hada not been caught jaywalking he might gain confidence and try something a little more serious. Whereas being popped for jaywalking would make me say to my self this police ain't playing and I better think twice before breaking any law let alone serious offense.

Makes a lot of sense in my opinion. Cracking down on the minor crimes would indeed effect major crime in cities. However, It is not acceptable for lower class level of people to suffer as a result of the broken window theory, or for police have the right to abuse their authority. Just like any other idea, the broken window theory has its pros and cons.

I believe that police concentrating on more minor crimes could, in some cases, stop people from committing more serious crimes. I also believe that if all police officers do is hand out traffic tickets, their attention will be drawn away from more serious crimes. The broken window policy in New York was successful in that the crime rate dropped, but it was unsuccessful in that police harassed the lower class people.

I think that focusing on minor crimes could prevent further major crimes. If you keep on getting tickets for little things, it will add up and be costly. You aren't going to want to keep paying fines. I think it was somewhat a success in New York City,it cut crime.

I agree with the comment above and I also think that we have rules and laws for a reason and there are just some things you just dont do.

I think that if police strictly enforced smaller crimes, then it would help prevent more serious crimes and crime altogether. People would take following the law more seriously instead of being nonchalant about it because they know they will not be punished. I do believe that the application of broken windows in New York City was a success. People saw that crime was being more strictly enforced so that broke the law less often, causing the drop in crime.

I believe the Broken Window implication in NY was a success because of the crime it cut down on, showing that little things wont get looked over. But it needs to be taken in small steps and avoid harassing citizens and just following the law. It will prevent more serious crimes due to the constant presence of the police.

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