Broken Windows Theory of Policing and Crime Rates

Subject: Law
Pages: 4
Words: 1131
Reading time:
4 min
Study level: College


Before the development and implementation of the broken windows theory, authorities focused on serious crimes such as rape, robbery, and murder. However, the developers of the theory viewed crime differently as they saw serious misconduct as a result of disorder (Newberry, 2017). Thus, if they eliminated the misdemeanors, severe crimes would not occur. The theory was established by Wilson and Kelling in 1982. William Bratton applied the theory in New York as a way of reducing delinquency in the city. This is because, for many years, the state had witnessed high crime rates. This essay will outline how the theory impacted New York and the civil rights issues that came up as a result of its application in the city.

Broken Windows Theory of Policing

Wilson and Kelling viewed crime as a result of the disorder, and to prevent the occurrence of serious crimes, the chaos had to be eliminated. The developers also indicated that the prevalence of disorder created fear in the minds of the citizen because the people were convinced that the area was unsafe (Newberry, 2017). The distress is likely to force individuals to withdraw from the community, which weakens the social controls that were useful in keeping offenders in check. The model posits that physical disorder is indicated by vacant lots full of trash, abandoned vehicles, broken windows, and empty houses (Newberry, 2017). Social disorder is characterized by aggressive panhandlers, noisy neighbors, and groups of youths assembling on a street corner (Newberry, 2017). These aspects contribute to the development of fear among individuals.

The theory is significant in that it addresses the issues that contribute to the development of criminal behavior. Other models focus on social issues such as poverty eradication and inadequate education, which are difficult to address. Police officers can apply the theory by focusing on the areas which have not been overtaken by serious crimes. This can have a positive impact on the people living in the area because it can help eradicate fear and resident withdrawal. Enhancing the levels of informal social control will assist citizens in taking control of their neighborhood and prevent serious crimes from developing.

Implementation of Broken Windows Theory in New York

Since the 1960s, New York state has experienced high numbers of serious crime rates such as murder, rape, and robbery with violence. The city was interested in ending this problem, and the broken windows theory was touted as the model to assist in eradicating delinquency. The most influential individual who put the theory into practice was William Bratton, first as the chief of New York City transit police and as New York City police commissioner. The quality-of-life initiative was introduced as a way of dealing with crimes such as panhandling, disorderly behavior, public drinking, street prostitution, and unsolicited windshield washing. These are deeds that had become rampant in the city and which increased fear among citizens.

Bratton constituted a team of plain-clothed police officers who were to be sent to the various areas in the city to crack down on petty offenders. Throughout the 1990s, many people were arrested for smoking marijuana in public, spraying graffiti, selling cigarettes, and illegal dancing (Newberry, 2017). As a result, crime rates around the state were reduced, and this was attributed to the effectiveness of the model. A follow-up study by Kelling indicated that in neighborhoods that had an increase in misdemeanors arrests, there was a reduction in delinquency. The success of the theory in New York City prompted other cities to adopt the approach.

The Change in Number of Stops in New York City

In 1993 New York City averaged over 1500 murders every year. The political leadership wanted to change these statistics because of the complaints by citizens. 1997 saw a decline of 9.1% in crime rates within the state, which was seen as a huge win by citizens and other stakeholders. Police officers in 2008 made over 200,000 stops in the state, but only 1% of them resulted in finding a gun (Newberry, 2017). The broken windows model continued to be applied by the law enforcement officers up to 2013, when a new Mayor came into office. By the end of that year, the state had 333 murders against a population of 8.5million people (Newberry, 2017). This was viewed as a huge win by people living in the city.

The emergence of a new administration in 2013 meant the end of the use of the broken windows policy. The new administration targeted the New York police department (NYPD), labeling it as racist. This affected the morale of the officers and effectively reduced the arrests that they made. The new mayor decriminalized misdemeanors such as smoking marijuana in public, turnstile jumping, and urinating in public. However, these measures did not lead to a sudden spike in delinquencies; instead, the state crime rates remained low. For example, in 2018, there were 289 murders which was the fewest in 70 years (Newberry, 2017).

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement changed the fortunes of the city. Evidence indicates that in August 2020, there was a 29% rise in homicides as compared to the same month in the previous year.

Civil Rights Issues Raised by New York Application of The Theory

Critics of the model applied by New York City police indicate that it increases the likelihood of racial and class bias. This is because the theory gives police the discretion to determine who is engaging in disorderly behavior. Communities of color are the most likely to be arrested because of such activities. Another aspect is that socially disadvantaged people are prone to be viewed as delinquents. Research indicates that most people associate criminal behavior with African Americans and other minority groups (Newberry, 2017). Such a perception is likely to lead to unfair policing in areas that are dominated by communities of color.

Financially disadvantaged people are more likely to engage in crime. This means that by applying the model, such people will be punished for being poor, whereas they could have been provided with resources to assist them. Therefore, by policing small misdemeanors, the law enforcement officers are creating more problems.


The broken windows theory of policing was viewed as an important part of reducing crime rates after its introduction in the 1990s. The police officers in New York City were able to apply it to enhance the safety of citizens. However, critics indicate that other factors contributed to the success of the model. The model was applied together with the stop and frisk strategy initiated by Bloomberg. This raised various civil rights issues because the officers were disproportionately targeting the communities of color. Racial and class bias are two factors that developed when the theory was put into practice in New York City.


Newberry, J. L. (2017). Broken Windows or Breaking Communities. In: Racial Profiling and the NYPD. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. Web.