The Broken Windows Theory

“If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” So says the broken windows theory, introduced by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in 1982, and widely adopted in law enforcement circles.

Though the theory was created with crime in mind, it has been adopted by many industries and vocations, including online community. I have seen it come up numerous times in our industry and, in talking with other veterans of the space, we’ve been applying it for quite a while.

Broken windows policing has plenty of critics and defenders. Depending on who you talk to, it has either contributed to the reduction crime or served as an enabler of oppressive policing (or both). Dr. Kelling argues that zealotry and poor implementation are the problem, and that leniency and discretion, both vital to good community policing, have been lost in the shuffle. He boils the theory down to the “simple idea of small things matter.” Plus:

  • What he would change about the original 1982 introduction of broken windows
  • How discretion and leniency factor into the application of laws
  • The misapplication of social science and theories

Big Quotes

“As we moved policing into cars, we changed the very nature of American policing without realizing it. Up until then, police on the beat were there to prevent crime. They were preventive officers. Once we put police in cars, the mission changed from policing to law enforcement, and that is responding after something happens. Even police doing policing, foot patrol and other kinds of interactions with the community are, at times, going to do law enforcement, but law enforcement is something that police ought to be doing just on occasion, rather than characterizing their entire role.” -@gkelling

“[When people say,] ‘We’re going to take police out of cars and, tomorrow, they’re going to do broken windows,’ that doesn’t take into account the whole negotiation process about what are the standards for this community. This is a discretionary issue, it doesn’t matter what the neighborhood is, you’re going to have different standards of behavior that people are comfortable with. Some neighborhoods are very comfortable with high levels of disorder.” -@gkelling

“Even when behavior isn’t illegal but it’s bothersome in the community, it seems to me an officer can play a mediating role and say, ‘Hey, come on. Knock it off. You know that you’re annoying these people. That’s not necessary.’ Part of it is, what we lost touch with is the ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition of persuading people to behave. From the very beginning, if you look at Sir Robert Peel’s principles, the whole idea was to persuade people to behave, rather than necessarily confronting them or arresting them.” -@gkelling

“There comes a point where you cut people short. Enough is enough, you have to stop here. Leniency is a disservice to this person as well as a disservice to the community. On the other hand, when we’re talking about minor offenders, if we start giving citations or making arrests or giving traffic tickets, just for the purpose of statistics or [for] quotas in police departments. That, it seems to me, gets away from the idea of broken windows, almost totally, because it takes away the idea of discretion. You’re arresting or taking other actions, not because you think it’s the best thing to do, but that it’s considered to be a bureaucratic good. One has to be very careful with that.” -@gkelling

“Just think if your accountability structure [in your online community] was such that you’re rewarded for the number of people that you kicked off. In some respects, that’s happened in areas of policing. Arrest has become a sign of productivity. Well, maybe at times, it is. Maybe at other times, it means just the opposite; that a lot of inappropriate authority is being used.” -@gkelling

“The ultimate measure [of successful policing] is the lack of crime and the support of the community. Those are the ultimate measures. Measuring those is very, very hard; very, very difficult. When we enshrine arrest as a sign of an officer’s productivity, rather than ‘Did the officers solve problems?,’ that means we haven’t found effective methods yet to [measure] department wide measures of solving problems as against just law enforcement. I don’t want to back away from law enforcement as a means of solving problems because, at times, you use it, but it seems to me there are myriad of other ways to solve problems.” -@gkelling

“Zero tolerance implies a zealotry that I think ought not to characterize policing. It denies discretion.” -@gkelling

About George L. Kelling

George L. Kelling is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University and a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Kelling has practiced social work as a child care worker and as a probation officer and has administered residential care programs for aggressive and disturbed youth. In 1972, he began work at the Police Foundation and conducted several large-scale experiments in policing—notably, the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment and the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment. The latter was the source of his contribution, with James Q. Wilson, to his most familiar essay in The Atlantic, “Broken Windows.” During the late 1980s, Kelling developed the order-maintenance policies in the New York City subway that ultimately led to radical crime reductions. Later, he consulted with the New York City Police Department in dealing with, among others, “squeegee men.”

Kelling is coauthor, with his wife, Catherine M. Coles, of “Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities” (1998). He holds a B.A. from St. Olaf College, an M.S.W. from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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