Theory of Broken Windows: The influence of Environment on the rate of Crime

By | June 7, 2021

The theory of Broken Windows is a scholastic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that utilized broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility inside a local area to ensuing events of the genuine crime.

Broken windows theory gigantically affected police strategy all through the 1990s and stayed persuasive into the 21st century. Maybe the most prominent use of the theory was in New York City under the course of Police Commissioner William Bratton. He and others were persuaded that the forceful request support practices of the New York City Police Department were answerable for the sensational decline in crime rates inside the city during the 1990s.

Bratton started making an interpretation of the theory into training as the head of New York City’s travel police from 1990 to 1992. Crews of casually dressed officials were allotted to get gate jumpers, and, as captures for misdeeds expanded, tram crimes of different sorts diminished significantly

I. Introduction

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory that expresses those noticeable signs of crime, against social conduct, and civil issue establishes a metropolitan climate that supports further crime and confusion, including serious crimes.[1] The theory proposes that policing strategies that target minor crimes, like vandalism, public drinking, jaywalking and toll avoidance, help to make an environment of order and legitimateness.

The theory was presented in a 1982 article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.[2] It was additionally advocated during the 1990s by New York City police magistrate William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose policing strategies were impacted by the theory.

The theory got subject to extraordinary discussion both inside the sociologies and the open arena. Broken windows policing has gotten related to questionable police practices, like the high utilization of stop-and-search in New York City in the decade up to 2013.

Accordingly, Bratton and Kelling have composed that broken windows policing ought not to be treated as “zero resilience” or “extremism”, yet as a strategy that requires “cautious preparing, rules, and oversight” and a positive relationship with networks, consequently connecting it to local area policing.

Prior to the development and implementation of various incivility theories such as broken windows, law enforcement scholars and police tended to focus on serious crime; that is, the major concern was with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape, robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling took a different view. They saw serious crime as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur.

II. Theoretical Explanation

Their theory further posits that the prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who are convinced that the area is unsafe. This withdrawal from the community weakens social controls that previously kept criminals in check. Once this process begins, it feeds itself. The disorder causes crime, and crime causes further disorder and crime.

Scholars generally define two different types of disorder.

  1. The first is a physical disorder, typified by vacant buildings, broken windows, abandoned vehicles, and vacant lots filled with trash.
  2. The second type is social disorder, which is typified by aggressive panhandlers, noisy neighbours, and groups of youths congregating on street corners.

The line between crime and disorder is often blurred, with some experts considering such acts as prostitution and drug dealing as a disorder while many others classify them as crimes. While different, these two types of disorder are both thought to increase fear among citizens.

The obvious advantage of this theory over many of its criminological predecessors is that it enables initiatives within the realm of criminal justice policy to effect change, rather than relying on social policy. Earlier social disorganization theories and economic theories offered solutions that were costly and would take a long time to prove effective. Broken windows theory is seen by many as a way to effect change quickly and with minimal expense by merely altering the police crime-control strategy. It is far simpler to attack disorder than it is to attack such ominous social ills as poverty and inadequate education.

III. Influence of Environment

In an anonymous urban environment, with few or no other people around, social norms and monitoring are not clearly known. Thus, individuals look for signals within the environment as to the social norms in the setting and the risk of getting caught violating those norms; one of the signals is the area’s general appearance.

Under the broken windows theory, an ordered and clean environment, one that is maintained, sends the signal that the area is monitored and that criminal behaviour is not tolerated. Conversely, a disordered environment, one that is not maintained (broken windows, graffiti, excessive litter), sends the signal that the area is not monitored and that criminal behaviour has little risk of detection.[3]

The theory assumes that the landscape “communicates” to people. A broken window transmits to criminals the message that a community displays a lack of informal social control and so is unable or unwilling to defend itself against a criminal invasion. It is not so much the actual broken window that is important, but the message the broken window sends to people. It symbolizes the community’s defencelessness and vulnerability and represents the lack of cohesiveness of the people within. Neighbourhoods with a strong sense of cohesion fix broken windows and assert social responsibility on themselves, effectively giving themselves control over their space.[4]

1. Informal Social Controls

Many are of the opinion that informal social control can be a compelling technique to decrease boisterous conduct. Laurel communicates that “local area policing measures in the realisation that informal social control practiced through ordinary connections and organizations is more viable than legitimate sanctions.” Informal social control strategies have shown a “get extreme” disposition by proactive residents, and express a feeling that cluttered lead isn’t endured. As indicated by Wilson and Kelling, there are two sorts of gatherings associated with keeping everything under control, ‘local area guardians’ and ‘vigilantes’.[5]

The United States has received from various perspectives policing techniques of old European occasions, and around then, informal social control was the standard, which brought about contemporary formal policing. However, on prior occasions, in light of the fact that there were no lawful approvals to follow, informal policing was principally ‘objective’ driven, as expressed by Wilson and Kelling.

Wilcox et al. 2004 contend that ill-advised land use can cause an issue, and the bigger the public land is, the more vulnerable to criminal deviance.[8] Therefore, non-residential spaces, like organizations, may accept to the accountability of informal social control “as observation, correspondence, oversight, and intervention”.

It is normal that more outsiders possessing the public land makes a higher possibility for jumble. Jane Jacobs can be viewed as one of the first pioneers of this viewpoint of broken windows. Quite a bit of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, centres around occupants’ and out-of-state people’s commitments to keeping everything under control in the city, and clarifies how nearby organizations, establishments, and general stores give a feeling of having “eyes on the street”.[6]

2. Role of Fear

Ranasinghe argues that the concept of fear is a crucial element of broken windows theory because it is the foundation of the theory. She also adds that public disorder is “… unequivocally constructed as problematic because it is a source of fear”.

Fear is elevated as the perception of disorder rises; creating a social pattern that tears the social fabric of a community and leaves the residents feeling hopeless and disconnected. Wilson and Kelling hint at the idea but do not focus on its central importance. They indicate that fear was a product of incivility, not crime, and that people avoid one another in response to fear, weakening controls.

Hinkle and Weisburd found that police intervention to combat minor offenses, as per the broken windows model, “significantly increased the probability of feeling unsafe,” suggesting that such interventions might offset any benefits of broken windows policing in terms of fear reduction.[7]

IV. Relationship Between Crime and Disorder

As per an examination by Robert J. Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush, the reason on which the theory works, that social issue and crime are associated as a component of a causal chain, is flawed. They contend that a third factor, aggregate adequacy, “characterized as a union among inhabitants joined with shared assumptions for the social control of public space,” is the real reason for fluctuating crime rates that are seen in a changed neighbourhood climate. They additionally contend that the connection between the open issue and the crime rate is weak.[8]

Another tack was taken by a recent report scrutinizing the authenticity of the theory concerning the subjectivity of turmoil as seen by people living in areas. It focused on whether residents see the problem as a different issue from crime or as indistinguishable from it. The investigation noticed that crime can’t be the consequence of turmoil if the two are indistinguishable, concurred that confusion gave proof of “focalized legitimacy” and presumed that broken windows theory misjudges the connection between jumble and crime.[9]

V. Conclusion

Hence, as it can be seen, the theory of broken windows draws a connection between disorder and crime and attempts to minimise criminal activities by maintaining order. It does have its own pros and cons but its implementation will be quite effective. The application of this theory will be beneficial in maintaining law and order and containing the rate of criminal activities.


[1] Wilson, James Q.; Kelling, George L. (March 1982). “Broken Windows”. www.theatlantic.com. Retrieved 29 October 2020.

[2] Kelling, George; Coles, Catherine (1997), Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities, ISBN 978-0-684-83738-3.

[3] Newman, Oscar (1972), Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, ISBN 978-0-02-000750-0.

[4] Wilson, James Q; Kelling, George L (Mar 1982), “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety”, The Atlantic, retrieved 2007-09-03.

[5] Sampson, RJ; Raudenbush, SW (2004), “Seeing Disorder: Neighborhood Stigma and the Social Construction of “Broken Windows””, Social Psychology Quarterly, 67 (4): 319–42,

[6] Ranasinghe, P (2012), “Jane Jacobs’ framing of public disorder and its relation to the ‘broken windows’ theory”, Theoretical Criminology

[7] Sridhar, C.R. (13–19 May 2006). “Broken Windows and Zero Tolerance: Policing Urban Crimes”. Economic and Political Weekly. 41 (19): 1841–43. JSTOR 4418196.

[8] Johnson, Carolyn Y (2009-02-08). “Breakthrough on ‘broken windows”. The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on 2009-02-11. Retrieved 2009-02-20.

[9] Sampson, Robert J.; Raudenbush, Stephen W (1 November 1999). “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods” (PDF). American Journal of Sociology. 105 (3): 603–51. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.691.8356. doi:10.1086/210356.


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.