"Broken Windows" Policing

Wilson and Kelling (in Cole & Gertz, 2013) discuss the concept of the “broken windows” theory which, in summary, posits that disorderly or unruly behaviors left unchecked lead to greater disorder and, possibly, criminal behavior. In an effort to maintain order in a neighborhood, and thus attempt to mitigate or reduce potential criminal behaviors, police officers often utilize their authority to remove potential threats to order through charges with little legal meaning such as “suspicious person,” “vagrancy,” or “public drunkenness” (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013). The decriminalization of such behaviors, or the cessation of treating such behaviors as illegal, removes an invaluable tool from law enforcement officials in maintaining order within neighborhoods and, by extension, invites a rise in disorder that could lead to increased criminal activity. In short, Wilson and Kelling’s (in Cole & Gertz, 2013) declaration that the decriminalization of disreputable behavior is a mistake is accurate.

In order to better understand why Wilson and Kelling are correct in their assertion, a more in-depth look at the “broken windows” theory is first necessary. In 1969, Philip Zimbardo conducted experiments to test the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates with its hood up placed in the Bronx, and a comparable vehicle placed in Palo Alto, California (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013). Vandals attacked the vehicle in the Bronx within ten minutes, and everything of value was stripped within twenty-four hours; random destruction of the vehicle began shortly afterward (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013). The vehicle in Palo Alto remained untouched for more than a week, until Zimbardo smashed part of the vehicle in with a sledgehammer; within a few hours, the vehicle had been turned upside down and destroyed (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013).

Zimbardo’s experiment highlights the core idea behind the broken-window theory: one broken window, if left untended, indicates a lack of concern about a location and invites more broken windows. Similarly, one undeterred panhandler in a neighborhood becomes the first “broken window,” and if law enforcement or concerned citizens cannot keep a single panhandler from annoying passersby then opportunistic criminals may believe their chances of being caught or identified in such a neighborhood are greatly diminished (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013).

There are, of course, concerns that the utilization of the aforementioned charges to maintain order within a neighborhood may infringe on an individual’s rights or be applied inequitably by police officers. According to Wilson and Kelling (in Cole & Gertz, 2013), there may be agreement on certain behaviors that male a person undesirable, but there must also be assurance that age, skin color, national origin, harmless mannerisms, or other such factors do not become the basis for distinguishing between undesirable and desirable persons within a neighborhood. There is not a wholly satisfactory answer to such a concern, aside from the hope that the selection, training, and supervision of police officers results in a clear sense of the limit of their discretionary authority (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013).

The broken-window theory suggests that minor disturbances and undesirable behaviors in a neighborhood, if left unchecked, lead to greater disorder and potentially criminal behavior. Such behaviors also create a sense of fear in residents of those neighborhoods, which leads to people avoiding one another and weakening controls in the neighborhood (Wilson & Kelling, in Cole & Gertz, 2013) and thus inviting further disorder. By utilizing charges of “suspicious person,” “vagrancy,” and “public drunkenness” police officers are able to help maintain order and, subsequently, reduce fear and the potential for crime legally. To decriminalize such behaviors would reduce the ability of police officers to assist neighborhoods in maintaining order, and would certainly be a mistake.


Cole, G. & M. Gertz (eds.) (2012). The criminal justice system: Politics and policies, 10th ed. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.

Worrall, J. (2008). Crime control in America: What works? 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson.