The "broken windows" theory of crime prevention and control is perhaps one of the most widely discussed and least understood law enforcement paradigms, due to the relative simplicity of the theory and the ostensibly dramatic reductions in crime offered by the first studies of cities in which a "broken windows" policy was implemented. The policy was first proposed in the early 1980s, but it was not until the 1990s, when New York adopted a broken windows policy and saw a drop in crime rates, that the theory became widely popularized. However, subsequent analysis of these drops in crime as well as other detrimental effects of a broken windows policy helps to reveal that the gains initially promised by the results in New York and other cities is not indicative of a broken windows policy in general, and in fact, many of these reductions in crime may be attributed to other, less obvious factors.
The broken windows policy of crime control was first introduced in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in an essay asserting "that crime and disorder are casually linked, and that policing 'little things is instrumental in preventing serious crime" (Geller, 2007). Thus, the theory takes its name from the idea that small forms of urban disorder, like broken windows (or graffiti, or in the famous case of New York, people hopping over subway turnstiles), contribute to a general sense of disorder, which actually increases crime by providing an environment in which it appears that disorder, and thus crime, will go unpunished. According to the theory, "social and physical disorder indirectly lead to serious crimes through a neighborhood breakdown of informal social controls," with broken windows functioning as a symbol of this social breakdown (Distler, 2011, p. 1). Put another way, the appearance of a broken window supposedly increases the likelihood of further damage, because potential criminals see the broken window as evidence of a general negligence on the part of police or residents.
Thus, for police hoping to reduce crime rates through the application of a broken windows policy of crime control, efforts are focused "on low-level, misdemeanor offenses" as well as stricter civil guidelines for urban upkeep and maintenance (Distler, 2011, p. 1). The appeal of the broken windows theory is attractive for obvious reasons; most crucially, it claims that all police need to do is focus on minor offenses and the rest will almost magically clear itself up, thus obviating the need for any larger structural or social changes. This has resulted in so-called "zero-tolerance" policies in a number of major cities, with any drop in crime rates over the last twenty years being almost exclusively attributed to these policies.
The Application of Broken Windows Theory
The first notable application of a broken windows policy was in the New York City subway system, when William Bratton instituted a strict zero-tolerance policy for graffiti and skipping out on train fare. Following his tenure "as the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [he] then imported [a broken windows policy] to the New York City Police Department when he became commissioner in the mid-1990s" with the enthusiastic support of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani (Distler, 2011, p. 1). The rest is "a saga [Giuliani] loves to tell: how aggressive enforcement against 'squeegee men' and subway turnstile jumpers was followed by a precipitous decline in homicides and other serious crimes" ("Broken Windows and Crime," 2007, p. 1). This was described as a "quality-of-life initiative," and was "met with overwhelming support in the press and among public officials, policymakers, sociologists, criminologists and political scientists," as New York "boasted of being the safest 'big' city in the United States" (Harcourt, 1998, p. 291, & Edwards, 2009, p. 24). Over the course of the 1990s, violent crime rates did fall dramatically in New York, which saw "arrests for violent crimes [drop] from just under 150,000 to around 75,000," and the "homicide rate [fall] even more dramatically, demonstrating a 70% drop during the same time period" (Distler, 2011, p. 1). Considering New York's almost terrifying reputation for violent crime in the 1970s and 80s, this turnaround prompted other cities to take notice,
Following New York's lead, "more than twenty years later, the three most populous cities in the United States -- New York, Chicago, and, most recently, Los Angeles -- have all adopted at least some aspect of" broken windows theory, "primarily through more aggressive enforcement of minor misdemeanor laws" (Harcourt, 2006, p. 271). The popularity of zero-tolerance policies has spread beyond the United States as well, with the ruling party of Ireland in the 1990s, Fiana Fail, adopting a zero-tolerance policy and even having "the NYPD's imposing and impressive Chief John Timoney [campaign] in Ireland on behalf of Fiana Fail, saying that the party was worthy of votes because of their love for Zero Tolerance" (Rohan, 1997, p. 16). This popularity was born out of an almost unbridled joy at the notion that simple increases in police enforcement of misdemeanors could solve nearly all of a cities crime problems, and thus broken windows policies were instituted across the board, in programs ranging from "intensive and aggressive street-level interdiction of low-level disorder" through community policing to a simple increase in the number tickets issued for minor offenses (Fagan, 2002, p. 134). However, in the midst of this mad rush to institute zero-tolerance policies in an attempt to recreate New York's success, few policymakers of law enforcement officials bothered to investigate the evidence supporting the supposed causal relationship between disorder and violent crime.
Causation vs. Correlation
Before investigating the evidence for and against the claims made by supporters of broken window policies, it will be helpful to briefly explicate two terms that have been the source of numerous misunderstandings and misapplications of policy. "Causation" and "correlation" are both terms used to describe the relationship between two factors in any given study, but the subtle difference between the two means the difference between a multimillion dollar law enforcement initiative being supported by robust evidence, or being a waste of time and money as a result of a misunderstanding of the evidence. Correlation means that the two factors under discussion have some kind of observable relationship, such that changes in the one are reflected by changes in the other. In the case of broken windows policies, there is clearly a correlation between lower levels of disorder and lower levels of violent crime, because correlation is generally easily observable, such as in the dramatic decrease in crime rates witnessed in New York during the 1990s.
Causation, on the other hand, requires more investigation and evidence, because it describes a relationship in which changes in one factor actually cause the changes in the other. In the case of correlation, there may be a third, unknown factor ultimately responsible for the changes in both known variables, such that one may observe correlation without causation. Broken windows theory relies on a perceived causal relationship between disorder and violent crime, because the claim is that a reduction in disorder causes a reduction in violent crime, but a closer look at the cases of broken windows policies which have been instituted over the last thirty years reveals that at best, one may only identify a correlation between the two, and not causation. This has led to an ongoing debate "over whether the relationship between disorder and crime is causal or correlational," because proponents of zero-tolerance policies can point towards the very real reductions in crime seen in major U.S. cities as justification for their position, but this represents an ultimately oversimplified understanding of statistics and the complex interplay of social factors (Yang, 2010, p. 140). In short, this is because those studies which seemed to show a causal relationship between disorder and violent crime failed to account for a number of other social, political, economic, and demographic changes occurring at the same time these policies were instituted, such that they failed to appreciate how these additional changes could actually precipitate the drops seen in both disorder and violent crime.
Investigating the Evidence
The easiest way to demonstrate the problem with statistical evidence seemingly supporting broken windows theories is to address those applications of it which have been pointed to most frequently and vehemently; namely, New York and other major cities in the United States. New York, being the most populous U.S. city, is the most popular example to cite, as "crime rates in New York City have plummeted in recent years -- years that have coincided, in large part, with the implementation of the quality-of-life initiative" (Harcourt, 1998, p. 331). However, the assumption that this drop has occurred due to an increase in the enforcement of misdemeanor laws and other minor infractions is almost laughably simplistic, because there are a huge variety of other variables which may have contributed to the decline in both disorder and violent crime. According to Harcourt:
These include a significant increase in the New York City Police force, a general shift…