Broken Window Theory Debunked?


For decades policing theories have been based on the idea that, by cracking down on minor offenses, you can drive down more serious crime.  A theory proposed by researchers James Q. Wilson and George Killing in 1972 used the term “broken windows” as a metaphor to describe disorder within high crime neighborhoods.

The theory proliferated around police stations, especially in New York under the direction of Commissioner William Bratton, who became convinced that aggressive practices were responsible for the dramatic decrease in crime since the 1980s.

However, critics believe that the broken window theory leads to the unfair targeting of minorities, most notoriously through policies such as stop and frisk.  Those policies have come under fire recently as culprits for exacerbating tensions between police and the minority populations they often need to serve.

Police Commissioner Bratton has claimed that serious crime will increase when police officers do not crack down on minor offenses.  However, a new report by the New York Police Department’s inspector general’s office contradicts this belief.

Examining primarily data from 2015, the report found that enforcement of minor crimes disproportionately hit precincts with high numbers of black and Hispanic residents, while precincts with high rates of white residents had lower enforcement rates.

Moreover, the report found that the rate of enforcement for those minor offenses – specifically in this case disorderly conduct, public urination and open-container violations – had no real impact in driving down felonies over the past six years.

Writes Norman Siegel in the New York Daily News, “This finding statistically debunks the long-established supremacy of NYPD’s ‘Broken Windows’ crime reduction strategy — and raises substantial questions about the direction of policing.

“The NYPD went all-in for ‘zero tolerance’ of minor perceived disorder as key to reducing felony crime. As summonses spiked — and murders and major felonies fell — New York became a national laboratory for ‘Broken Windows,’” he writes.  “Not everyone got on board.”

He continued, “Civil rights advocates and some elected officials doubted the unverified correlation between quality-of-life and felony crime, and pointed to a spike in tension between black and Latino youth and the NYPD. Community leaders reporting that their young people were being stopped, frisked and arrested disproportionately to whites for minor offenses were ignored until it was too late; the federal court found NYPD guilty of racial bias in 2013.”

Police Reform Organizing Project Director Robert Gangi, a longtime critic, said the DOI (Department of Investigation) report puts Mayor Peter de Blasio — who has consistently backed Commissioner Bratton on this issue — “in a crossfire” in which agents of his own administration “undermine the claims of his police commissioner.”

Mayor De Blasio has not responded to the report, but Commissioner Bratton has called it “deeply flawed,” asserting that it “fails to acknowledge what all New York City residents know: that every community in the city is safer and has a better quality of life due in large part to the extensive quality-of-life enforcement” by the police since 1994.

Heather MacDonald, a conservative columnist in the NY Daily News, writes, “Sadly the IG’s report will inevitably be used to further undermine the order maintenance policing the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas demand from their local police.”

She argues that the report “does not show that ‘Broken Windows’ policing in New York is racially biased. ‘Broken Windows’ enforcement actually occurs at a lower rate in predominantly black neighborhoods than what the violent crime rate in those areas would predict.”

In an earlier column, Ms. MacDonald added, “There is no New York City institution more dedicated to the proposition that ‘black lives matter’ than the New York Police Department; thousands of black men are alive today who would have been killed years ago had data-driven policing not brought down the homicide levels of the early 1990s.”

Josmar Trujillo writes, “Broken Windows was always about constant police contact with vulnerable groups of people. A buffet of interactions, the theory was in some ways just a crude, physical form of surveillance. The fact that it never worked was secondary to what did work: creating a politically accepted justification for crackdowns on those populations. After all, the theory implied that the squeegee man, the subway dancers, the ‘loosie’ sellers and the homeless were responsible for the murder rate.”

He adds, “It’s time to bury that idea and reverse that strategy by listening to the stories of those who’ve been dealing with the fallout of decades of a law and order onslaught.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. The Pugilist

    There are lots of flawed assumptions here about enforcement practices, I think the biggest is that enforcing small crimes deters or perhaps catches larger criminals.  The most effective strategy would be an education/ jobs program combined with a felony waiver program to allow former felons to get jobs and escape that lifestyle.

  2. Napoleon Pig IV

    “. . . Commissioner Bratton has called it “deeply flawed,” asserting that it “fails to acknowledge what all New York City residents know: that every community in the city is safer and has a better quality of life due in large part to the extensive quality-of-life enforcement” by the police since 1994.”

    This is an important and valid critique of the report. Anyone who has lived or traveled extensively in New York over the past twenty to thirty years knows beyond doubt that it used to be a cesspool and now it is not.

    Statistics and studies are always flawed when they fail to explain, or at least begin to explain, objective facts. This study, based on data mainly from 2015 and looking back up to six years, is wholly inadequate to explain the re-emergence of civilization in New York City – a phenomenon highly correlated with the policies implemented by Bratton.

    Of course, education and jobs programs, an honest justice system (which we do not have), elimination of peer silence about crooked and bully cops, felony waiver programs, mental health services, and other social support systems should all be used as well as a fairly applied broken windows policy.

    To pretend that ignoring less serious crimes in the name of political correctness will not embolden parasites and lead to higher rates of serious crimes is naive. Pigs are abundant and they really like passive sheep. Oink!

  3. tribeUSA

    NP–good well-balanced comment! And DG, nice to see recent articles such as this that present contrasting views on an issue; seems to me both points of view here have some validity.

  4. quielo

    This article conflates two different policing approaches. Broken Windows is designed to give people the feeling they live in a safe community. Stop and frisk is a function of reducing the number of guns on the street as the key metric for improving safety. It is very possible to have one without the other.

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