Is the Broken Windows Theory Effective?


Right now you are probably thinking one of two things: what is the broken windows theory or if you are criminology major you are thinking do I really have to hear about this again?


For those of you who do not know the broken windows theory was created from an experiment done by Philip Zimbardo with two abandoned cars; one with no license plate left in a parking in the Bronx and another car left in a parking lot in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was immediately vandalized with both windows smashed and then the air conditioner was stolen from the car. The car in Palo Alto was not vandalized right away, but then Zimbardo smashed a window in the car and others began to vandalize it. From this experiment the broken windows theory was created, in which it is stated that disorder, or quality of life offenses, cause serious crime. This essentially claims that if minor offenses (like vandalism) go unpunished than criminals will think the police do not care about the community and criminals will be more likely to commit serious crimes.


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The question behind this theory and all theories really for that matter is whether or not it is effective in practice? Well in the 1990's, New York City Police Commissioner, William Bratton; put this theory to the test. Bratton required that police officers implement a zero tolerance policy that addressed order maintenance offenses. This included police officers issuing citations for open container violations, vandalism, and taking vagrants off the streets. Arresting criminals for these minor infractions shows that police do care about the community. The results of this new style of policing showed that crime between 1990 and 2001 decreased by 76%. Arrest rates for minor crimes increased between 1990 and 2001. Further, it was found that precincts with the greatest arrest rates for minor offenses had the largest decrease in homicide and robbery rates. Additional analysis of the results showed that if the rate of order maintenance policing was doubled, it would result in an 11% reduction in robbery and 28% reduction in homicide rates. For more information on how broken windows policing was considered effective check out this article here.


However, there is some doubt about whether or not the broken windows theory is actually effective. While it is true that robbery and homicide rates were reduced from 1990-2001 in New York City, there has not been a direct connection drawn between crime rates and broken windows policing. There are other factors that could have caused the robbery and homicide rates to drop. For instance during 1990-2001, as a part of the problem oriented policing plan there was an increase in police officers in New York City. According to an article from the University of Michigan website it is stated that the crime rates in New York City could have decreased simply due to the factor that more police were hired during that time and not the style of policing that the police officers used. This study can be viewed here.


So my question is if broken windows policing had an impact on crime in New York City could it have an impact on crime in other cities? Look out for my next blog for the answers to this question.


What an interesting topic! I fell under the category of wondering what the broken window theory was considering I am a communications major. I was worried I wasn't going to find out, but you made sure to make it clear. I feel as though the experiment could have been more affective if New York City issued the policy while using the same amount of cops as usual. Therefore the only differing factor is how the police handle crime. With what we've learned in Andrew's class that could help make the answer more clear, so next time you and I should handle the experiment!

An interesting study indeed. I feel that there is lot of other data that could explain the decrease in crime; correlation is not causation. However, it is an interesting notion that should be explored further. As a soc major, I very much like to see what humans do given a situation and this study would gather some interesting data.

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