Broken Windows Theory

Broken Windows Theory

Aug 24, 2021


The Broken Windows theory was reported in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point.


Broken Windows was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no none is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitation to more serious crimes.

In the mid 1980s the New York Transit Authority put the broken windows theory into practice. Until then they had not worried about graffiti, preferring to focus on the larger questions of crime and subway reliability. But the theory claimed that the graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system.


A new Management structure was introduced with a set of goals and timetables aimed at cleaning the system line by line, train by train. If a car came in with graffiti, the graffiti had to removed during the changeover or removed from service.


The graffiti clean up took from 1984 to 1990. Then the second stage of reclamation of the subway began, with a crackdown on fare beating.


Serious crimes on the subway system were at an all-time high. But it was believed that, like graffiti, fare beating could be a signal, a small expression of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. Until the, the transit police had not thought it worth their time to pursue, because there was only $1.25 at stake for each individual incident, and there were plenty of more serious crimes happening down on the platform and on the trains.


The bonus was that one in seven of those arrested were found to have an outstanding warrant for a previous crime, and one in twenty was carrying a weapon of some sort. Arrests for misdemeanours, for the kind of minor offences that had gone unnoticed in the past, went up fivefold between 1990 and 1994.


When Rudolph Giuliani became mayor of New York in 1994, the Broken Windows theory was applied to the New York Police Department, with a crack down on quality of life crimes, including drunkenness, littering and public urination.


Crime in the city began to fall as quickly as it had in the subways, demonstrating that seemingly insignificant quality of life crimes were tipping points for violent crime.


Stories from a Corporate Coach on Amazon.