Introduction: The Theory of Broken Windows


In the 1800s, research started focusing on the different rates of crime in different neighbourhoods and asked questions about the disparity in the rate of criminal activity between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Many theories were formulated, one of them being the Theory of Broken Windows. Before the introduction of this theory, policymakers and scholars focused mainly on addressing serious crimes like rape, murder or robbery. However, two academicians, James Q Wilson and criminologist George Kelling believed serious crimes to be a consequence of a chain of events. They believed that prevalence of disorder caused criminal activity and that if disorder was addressed, grave crimes would also not occur.

Wilson and Kelling, in 1982, proposed a theory that proposed a relationship between community disorder and the rate of criminal activity. It is famously known as the Broken Window Theory because it uses broken windows as an analogy for disorder within a community. In order to explain the directly proportional relationship between disorder and crime, the theory explained that fear is developed in the minds of the citizenry due to the frequency of disorder and misbehaviour in their community.

They start believing that their area is not trustworthy and secure and hence, decrease their participation in their community. Criminal activities, that were contained because of social control, are encouraged because of the decreased community participation. There comes into existence a perpetual circle of disorder and crime; disorder leads to crime and crimes leads to more disorder.

Broken Windows Put to Test

The most popular implementation of the Broken Windows Theory was in New York City by William Bratton, the New York Police Commissioner in 1994. He believed that stringent order maintaining practices were responsible for the considerable decrease of criminal activity in New York City in the 1900s. The application of the theory included officers in plainclothes arresting turnstile jumpers. It was observed that as arrests for petty offences increased, there was a sharp decrease in subway criminal activities.

By virtue of the implementation of the theory, public drinking, street prostitution and disorderly behaviour, in general, was arrested. Apparently, the theory was very successful because when Bratton stepped down from his post in 1996, not only did the homicide rate become half but felonies were reduced by 40% in New York.

To elaborate a little further on the name of the theory, police officials and social psychologists believe that if a building has a broken window and it is left unrepaired, the remaining windows will also be broken within a short time. This is because, if a broken window is left unrepaired, it is a signal that the occupants of the building or the neighbourhood do not care and hence, breaking windows becomes a fun-filled activity at no extra cost.

The theory was also put to test by Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, in 1969. In order to test the theory, he parked two cars, one in a neighbourhood with a high crime rate and the other in a locality with a relatively low crime rate, comprising mainly of the middle class as opposed to the former which comprised the poor. The car parked in the poor neighbourhood was vandalised within an hour. It was observed that most of the vandals were smartly dressed, were whites and did not have a criminal background. The fate of the car parked in the middle-class area is a little more intriguing.

After remaining intact for a week, Zimbardo smashed a part of the car using a sledgehammer. Thereafter, the occupants of the locality joined in. A couple of hours later, the car was upside down and absolutely destroyed. It was noted that again, the vandals were whites. It can be inferred that vandalising abandoned property is a fun-filled activity and is done even by those who are not expected to by virtue of them being law-abiding, good Samaritans. Hence, it is safe to conclude that in the context of the above experiment, vandalism can occur anywhere and is indifferent to communal barriers. It seems that where nobody cares, the sense of responsibility and obligation towards the society vanishes.

The Broken Windows Theory, Broken?: Acceptance and Critics

Evidently, the advantage of this theory is that it is a guide for criminal policies and appropriate policies can be used to address crimes with the help of this theory. Reliance on bringing about a social change in order to reform people and thereby prevent crime is not required. Such solutions are expensive to implement and are also time-consuming. However, broken windows can be used as a quick, inexpensive and effective instrument of change. It is much more fruitful and understandable than the tedious and complex task of combating social evils such as poverty.

However, despite being popular among policymakers, broken windows theory has its fair share of critics. Critics believe that the empirical evidence available to support that disorder indeed does lead to crime is inadequate. It must be proved unquestionably that fear is caused due to disorder, fear results in weakening of social control and the consequence of this reduced social control is the occurrence of crime.

Empirical evidence fails to conclusively prove the definite occurrence of this chain of events. Criminal Justice scholar Ralph Taylor, after extensive research, concluded that it was difficult to find a clear and conclusive link between prevalence of disorder and occurrence of crime. Consequently, due to lack of evidence, broken windows has widely raised doubts.

Moreover, Kelling points out that the theory is more often than not incorrectly applied, though the ‘Broken Windows’ article is among one of the most cited articles in criminology. The most significant adverse impact was the emergence of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy and policing practices. It is obvious that the minority communities had to face the maximum brunt of the misapplication of the theory.

An increase in widely contested policing practices such as ‘stop and frisk’ was reported along with a soar in the number of police misconduct complaints. Minorities were unjustly targeted, especially black men and hence, it is believed that the racial composition of the communities is more relevant for the broken windows theory rather than the number of broken windows. Therefore, the application of this theory has become problematic, perhaps resulting in greater damage than good.

Broken Windows for India

The authors believe that if we try applying the broken windows theory in the Indian context, it will impact the rate of criminal activities. If the broken window is fixed, the number of crimes committed will reduce. For instance, consider the issue of road safety. Signals are obediently flouted, roads are irresponsibly crossed, a one way is made a two way and pavements are encroached upon by hawkers. One draws inspiration from the other to flout road safety rules and the disorder thus caused becomes widespread.

If the broken window is repaired, that is, if one person is stopped from causing disorder by way of penalisation, others will automatically fall in line. If such apparent but not addressed disorders are contained, there will be no broken windows and hence, order will be maintained. If order is maintained, there will be increased social control and increased social control would imply lesser criminal activities.

As soon as one hears the name ‘Kashmir’, a picture of violence, disorder and lawlessness floats before one’s eyes, causing uneasiness at the mention of the state. However, perhaps the broken windows theory can justify the prevalence of disorder. It is reported that children start taking part in the violence by pelting stones and end up with guns. Had the disorder been addressed at its nascent stage, had the stone pelting and other petty disorders been arrested, guns and other weapons would have remained out of the picture. If disorders are arrested, they will not grow into crimes. Therefore, application of the theory would indeed reduce the rate of criminal activities.

There is a notion, quite understandably, that it is okay to commit petty crimes or to cause disorder since they will not be brought to book for it. What is the solution? Enacting more laws with severe penalisation? No, India does not suffer from a dearth of legislation, in fact, we suffer from more of it. What is required is effective implementation of laws and addressing the ground level problems before moving on to the serious ones. If disorder is turned into order, a decreased rate of criminal activities can be achieved by virtue of the broken windows theory.

Concluding Remarks

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


About the Authors, Shivani [2018-23 Batch] & Sevanshi [2018-23 Batch] are pursuing B.A.LL.B(Hons) from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata


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