Understanding “Broken Windows” Theory

Last May, Mayor Durkan stirred the proverbial hornets’ nest when she announced that the city would be adding “emphasis patrols” of police officers to seven neighborhoods around Seattle, paired with increased efforts by other city departments to clean up graffiti, fix broken streetlights, clean up garbage, and generally beautify those areas.

What set many people off was the apparent link between that effort and “broken windows” theory, a controversial approach to reducing crime in urban areas. In fact, when pressed on the issued she doubled down, by specifically referencing it in an interview with the Seattle Times editorial board.

“Broken windows” theory, now 37 years old, gets tossed around a lot in political and policy circles, and continues to have both supporters and detractors. Let’s look at what it says, its uses and abuses, and what nearly four decades of studies tell us about the validity of the theory.

The “Broken Windows” theory was introduced into our collective vocabulary by researchers James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 in an article for Atlantic magazine. The idea is simple: visible signs of disorder in a neighborhood signal that no one cares what happens there, and that criminals can act with impunity. That leads to minor crimes, which in turn lead to more significant ones.  Neighborhoods spiral down, as fear of crime causes more neighbors to stay inside their homes and not get involved — and eventually to move to a “better neighborhood.”  Here’s how Wilson and Kelling describe it in their article:

[A]t the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing…

A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. “Don’t get involved.”

Yes, Wilson and Kelling get pretty creative (some would say fear-mongering) in their description of what they see as the effects of visible disorder. Their inspiration in going down this path is an experiment done in 1969 by the famous Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo (published in this book), who left identical abandoned cars on streets in the Bronx and in Palo Alto, with the license plates removed and the hood opened. Within minutes the car in the Bronx had been vandalized, and within 24 hours it had been almost entirely stripped. The car in Palo Alto, however, was left untouched for over a week — until Zimbardo smashed part of it, at which point it only took a few hours for it to be vandalized, flipped upside down and destroyed. What started as a study of anonymity in public places led to a separate (but not wholly unrelated) observation: Zimbardo taking the first whack at the car in Palo Alto apparently was a trigger that changed the way people acted in public.

Wilson and Kelling named the culprit “disorder,” and drew a straight arrow from disorder to crime. This suggests a corollary: that maintaining order will keep crime low. And one step further: that reducing disorder will reduce crime. All three are interesting hypotheses worthy of testing, but first we need some clarity about what we mean by “disorder.”

Researchers have discussed the idea of social “disorder” throughout the twentieth century, starting well before Wilson and Kelling. In fact, it was a major topic of concern in the 1950’s and 1960’s as the post-World War II urban crisis took hold. But with the term taking on new significance in 1982 after Wilson and Kelling published their article, the social science community went to work on dissecting it and creating a taxonomy of “disorder” to further study. Generally speaking, it was divided into two types: “physical disorder” such as graffiti, broken windows, and garbage; and “social disorder” including the presence of panhandlers, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, drunks, drug addicts, and people “loitering.”

Across the country, City Hall officials and police departments embraced the concept of “broken windows” by tackling both physical and social disorder: the former by sending out crews to quickly clean up graffiti, fix potholes, street lights, and other infrastructure, and keep the streets and sidewalks clean; and the latter by tasking police with taking a zero-tolerance approach to minor crimes and other forms of social disorder. The most famous of these efforts was the “quality of life” initiative in the mid-1990’s in New York City under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his hand-picked Chief of Police, William Bratton, a devotee of the “broken windows” theory. Bratton pushed the NYPD to aggressively make arrests for misdemeanors, as well as to “stop and frisk” people on the street on the least provocation (and frequently with no provocation). As part of the initiative, Giuliani and Bratton doubled the size of the police force between 1992 and 1998.

By 1999, crime had dropped dramatically in New York City, lending credence to the “Blue Revolution.” Giuliani and Bratton were quick to take credit for the drop and attribute it to the validity of the “broken windows” theory. Twenty years on, however, studies suggest that a number of other factors were just as likely to have contributed to the drop in crime, including:

  • a booming economy nationwide, which led to similar drops in crime in several other major U.S. cities — many of which had not implemented “broken windows” policies;
  • the emerging use of computer technology to compile crime statistics that allowed the NYPD to more effectively target the centers of criminal activity;
  • the enhanced powers of surveillance that the NYPD gained by aggressively arresting people for misdemeanors and through stop-and-frisk policing;
  • the illicit drug trade switched from crack cocaine to heroin;
  • aggressively arresting more people for minor crimes left fewer people on the streets to  cause major crimes.

However, lest you think that this was still an unequivocal success, the statistics on police activity from that time period showed that the “quality of life” initiative had a disparate impact on poorer people and on people of color. Using their discretion, NYPD officers disproportionately targeted “stop and frisk” techniques and arrests for minor offenses toward people of color. “Broken windows” theory, as applied to social disorder, became a convenient excuse for biased and abusive police conduct. And by no means was this limited to the NYPD: as the “blue revolution” spread, similar conduct appeared in cities across the country. This eventually led to pushback against aggressive policing, such as the consent decree the City of Seattle signed in 2012 in which it admitted to biased police practices.

In the meantime, social scientists continued to pursue a deeper understanding of the link between disorder and crime. Dozens of studies have been done since 1982, looking at statistical connections between the level of physical and/or social disorder and the level of crime (both minor and major), as well as proposing competing theories as to why some neighborhoods see spikes in crime and others don’t.

Unfortunately, there is little consensus among the studies. In fact, you can find a study that confirms almost any viewpoint on the “broken windows” theory. Of the more notable ones:

  • One found a weak link between disorder and robbery, but no link between disorder and other crimes.
  • Another found “quite modest” support for the idea that disorder leads to serious crime, but it varied based on the types of disorder and crime.
  • Still another early, seminal study in 1990  found that disorder is strongly correlated with perceived crime problems (though not necessarily actual crime) in a neighborhood, controlling for poverty, stability and racial composition of the neighborhood. It also found that the relationship between crime and economic/social factors was indirect, mediated through disorder. The same researcher in 2012 found that disorder and crime are correlated, but it is unclear whether the effect is causative or dependent upon other factors such as poverty or discrimination. However, a different researcher in 1998 re-analyzed the data in the 1990 study, and once he removed one city (Newark, NJ) from the data set, he found no correlation between disorder and serious crime in the remainder.
  • Another study found that race and concentrated poverty are statistically related to perceived disorder.
  • A study found in a series of six field experiments that dealing with disorderly conditions is important to halt the spread of further crime and disorder.
  • A 2010 study found that people can’t distinguish between disorder and crime.
  • A 2015 “meta-review” of 30 studies found that police disorder strategies are associated with modest crime reductions, but other interventions, particularly those involving the community to change physical and social disorder conditions at specific places generated the largest crime reduction impacts. It also found the aggressive order-maintenance strategies did not correlate to significant crime reduction. And it found that short-term drime reduction can come at the expense of undermining the fairness of law enforcement in the eyes of community residents.
  • Kelling did his own follow-up study in 2001 and declared that “broken windows” policing is definitively linked to decreases in violent crime.
  • A 1999 paper proposes that rather than disorder, the level of crime in a neighborhood is tightly tied to the level of “collective efficacy” – the linkage of cohesion and mutual trust with shared expectations for intervening in support of neighborhood social control. In other words, the extent to which there is agreement among the people in a neighborhood to support each other in self-policing undesirable behavior in public areas.
  • The same researchers found in 2004 that people perceive more disorder in neighborhoods with higher minority populations.
  • Alternatively, a 2007 study found some support for both “broken windows” and “collective efficacy,” but neither consistently explained the variation between neighborhoods. Instead, the author conducted a qualitative study in which he actually interviewed the people committing crimes in neighborhoods and learned that they don’t choose their activity areas based on cues of visible disorder, but rather on a different set of “ecological advantages” in the built environment.
  • Finally, a study earlier this year found little support for broken windows theory and heavily critiques previous studies that did; however, it did find a link between disorder and mental health.

Those of you who are sticklers for scientific convention will note at this point that we need to stop calling it the “broken windows” theory, because it fails the first and most important test for any scientific theory: its predicted results can’t be  consistently replicated. There isn’t any disagreement about the definition of either “disorder” or “crime,” but these studies show that the link between the two is anything but well understood and certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a proven cause-and-effect relationship. It appears that there’s something there, but as with many social science hypotheses there are so many confounding factors that it’s nearly impossible to tease out a clear, simple, and replicable rule — and there’s certainly not enough predictive power to justify a major policy initiative such as doubling the size of the police force and adopting aggressive, potentially abusive, policing practices. If we squint at the studies, it looks like the link between disorder and crime could be a second-order effect: it may hold in certain neighborhoods, in certain circumstances, but researchers have yet to identify which neighborhoods — and why. That points to a weakness in both the research and the policy initiatives: they treat all urban neighborhoods as identical, when clearly they are not.

So then why, if the “broken windows” hypothesis doesn’t really work as advertised, is it such a popular and persistent idea? There are at least three reasons:

  1. It has “truthiness” (with a nod to Stephen Colbert). Intuitively, it sounds like it should be right. It’s no surprise that Malcolm Gladwell highlighted “broken windows” in his bestselling book “The Tipping Point.”
  2. It’s comforting. We want to believe that there is a simple way to reduce crime so that we don’t need to live in fear in our own neighborhoods.
  3. It’s convenient. We want there to be a solution like this: it’s surface-level, it’s transactional, and it’s someone else’s problem. We don’t have to do anything ourselves; we can tell ourselves that if only the police and city officials would do their jobs, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
  4. It’s a powerful rhetorical tool. As Bernard Harcourt points out in his 2001 book, it provides a useful rhetorical device for re-casting “nuisance” behaviors that might not meet the threshold for police intervention into “harmful” ones because they supposedly lead to crime. And the police are, of course, justified in cracking down on activities that are harmful to individuals or to society.

Here’s a paragraph from Wilson and Kelling’s original 1982 article, which demonstrates what leads people to want a ready-made answer like the broken windows hypothesis:

In response to fear people avoid one another, weakening controls. Sometimes they call the police. Patrol cars arrive, an occasional arrest occurs but crime continues and disorder is not abated. Citizens complain to the police chief, but he explains that his department is low on personnel and that the courts do not punish petty or first-time offenders. To the residents, the police who arrive in squad cars are either ineffective or uncaring: to the police, the residents are animals who deserve each other. The citizens may soon stop calling the police, because “they can’t do anything.”

Sound familiar? Perhaps Wilson and Kelling should have had a writing credit for the “Seattle is Dying” video. But before we dismiss them out of hand as populist purveyors of public policy snake-oil, it’s worth pointing out that their original article is a hot mess, in which their “tough-on-crime” take on disorder and the role of the police is sprinkled with serious misgivings about how one might draw the wrong conclusions or jump to poor policy choices. To wit, here are some choice excerpts (I encourage you to read the entire article end-to-end to appreciate the ironies, contradictions, and now-obvious shortcomings of their argument):

The officer—call him Kelly—knew who the regulars were, and they knew him. As he saw his job, he was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden. If a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right, especially if the customer was a stranger. If a stranger loitered, Kelly would ask him if he had any means of support and what his business was; if he gave unsatisfactory answers, he was sent on his way. Persons who broke the informal rules, especially those who bothered people waiting at bus stops, were arrested for vagrancy. Noisy teenagers were told to keep quiet.


[T]he police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer.


Should police activity on the street be shaped, in important ways, by the standards of the neighborhood rather than by the rules of the state? Over the past two decades, the shift of police from order-maintenance to law enforcement has brought them increasingly under the influence of legal restrictions, provoked by media complaints and enforced by court decisions and departmental orders. As a consequence, the order maintenance functions of the police are now governed by rules developed to control police relations with suspected criminals. This is, we think, an entirely new development.


Until quite recently in many states, and even today in some places, the police made arrests on such charges as “suspicious person” or “vagrancy” or “public drunkenness”—charges with scarcely any legal meaning. These charges exist not because society wants judges to punish vagrants or drunks but because it wants an officer to have the legal tools to remove undesirable persons from a neighborhood when informal efforts to preserve order in the streets have failed.


A strong and commendable desire to see that people are treated fairly makes us worry about allowing the police to rout persons who are undesirable by some vague or parochial standard. A growing and not-so-commendable utilitarianism leads us to doubt that any behavior that does not “hurt” another person should be made illegal. And thus many of us who watch over the police are reluctant to allow them to perform, in the only way they can, a function that every neighborhood desperately wants them to perform.

This wish to “decriminalize” disreputable behavior that “harms no one”- and thus remove the ultimate sanction the police can employ to maintain neighborhood order—is, we think, a mistake. Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.


Of course, agencies other than the police could attend to the problems posed by drunks or the mentally ill, but in most communities especially where the “deinstitutionalization” movement has been strong—they do not.


The concern about equity is more serious. We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?

We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question. We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority. That limit, roughly, is this—the police exist to help regulate behavior, not to maintain the racial or ethnic purity of a neighborhood.


Though the police can obviously make arrests whenever a gang member breaks the law, a gang can form, recruit, and congregate without breaking the law. And only a tiny fraction of gang-related crimes can be solved by an arrest; thus, if an arrest is the only recourse for the police, the residents’ fears will go unassuaged. The police will soon feel helpless, and the residents will again believe that the police “do nothing.” What the police in fact do is to chase known gang members out of the project. In the words of one officer, “We kick ass.” Project residents both know and approve of this.


We have difficulty thinking about such matters, not simply because the ethical and legal issues are so complex but because we have become accustomed to thinking of the law in essentially individualistic terms. The law defines my rights, punishes his behavior and is applied by that officer because of this harm. We assume, in thinking this way, that what is good for the individual will be good for the community and what doesn’t matter when it happens to one person won’t matter if it happens to many. Ordinarily, those are plausible assumptions. But in cases where behavior that is tolerable to one person is intolerable to many others, the reactions of the others—fear, withdrawal, flight—may ultimately make matters worse for everyone, including the individual who first professed his indifference.


Wilson and Kelling do one other notable thing in their article: they reflect upon the essential role of communities in self-policing to maintain order. Here, too, they find themselves deeply conflicted. On one hand they say:

The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself. The police cannot, without committing extraordinary resources, provide a substitute for that informal control. On the other hand, to reinforce those natural forces the police must accommodate them.

This is a critical point: there is no way that the resources of a city’s police department can reasonably scale up to provide for order-maintenance everywhere simultaneously. Later they add:

But the substantive problem remains the same: how can the police strengthen the informal social-control mechanisms of natural communities in order to minimize fear in public places?

But in the end they dismiss this line of thought and put the onus back on police departments:

Though citizens can do a great deal, the police are plainly the key to order maintenance. For one thing, many communities, such as the Robert Taylor Homes, cannot do the job by themselves. For another, no citizen in a neighborhood, even an organized one, is likely to feel the sense of responsibility that wearing a badge confers. Psychologists have done many studies on why people fail to go to the aid of persons being attacked or seeking help, and they have learned that the cause is not “apathy” or “selfishness” but the absence of some plausible grounds for feeling that one must personally accept responsibility. Ironically, avoiding responsibility is easier when a lot of people are standing about. On streets and in public places, where order is so important, many people are likely to be “around,” a fact that reduces the chance of any one person acting as the agent of the community. The police officer’s uniform singles him out as a person who must accept responsibility if asked. In addition, officers, more easily than their fellow citizens, can be expected to distinguish between what is necessary to protect the safety of the street and what merely protects its ethnic purity.

This places them in stark contrast with one of the leading thinkers of the era on order and safety in cities: Jane Jacobs, the author of the highly-regarded and widely influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kelling noted in his later writings that Jacobs’ book heavily influenced his thinking (Wilson not so much), and in fact there is a research paper devoted entirely to how Jacobs’ writing relates to “broken windows.” Even Zimbardo does a shout-out to Jacobs in his description of the abandoned-car experiment.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, coming twenty one years before Wilson and Kelling’s Atlantic article, is remarkable in that it is not at all about “broken windows,” but is also central to it — both in its framing of “order” and in how it thoroughly undermines the tenets of the broken windows hypothesis. The book, first and foremost, is a scathing critique of urban planning in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which she claims had destroyed both the vitality and the safety of street life in large U.S. cities. Noting that “streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs,” she argues:

If a city’s streets are safe from barbarism and fear, the city is thereby tolerably safe from barbarism and fear. When people say that a city, or a part of it, is dangerous or is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they don’t feel safe on the sidewalks.

But sidewalks and those who use them are not passive beneficiaries of safety or helpless victims of danger. Sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users, are active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism in cities. To keep a city safe is a fundamental task of a city’s streets and its sidewalks…

Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers…

The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers.

Jacobs explains that the “barbarism” that had taken over many city streets in U.S. cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s wasn’t tied to slums, or older parts of the cities, or race or ethnicity. To the contrary, she gave examples of “quiet residential” areas that had been overrun with crime (e.g. the Elm Hill Avenue section of Roxbury) while some older, run-down, multi-ethnic areas such as Boston’s North End had very low crime rates.

She also stakes out the opposite ground from Wilson and Kelling on the role of the police in maintaining order, arguing for a deeper version of what would later be called “collective efficacy”:

The first thing to understand is that the public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves. In some city areas — older public housing projects and streets with very high population turnover are often conspicuous examples — the keeping of public sidewalk law and order is left almost entirely to the police and special guards. Such places are jungles. No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, causal enforcement of it has broken down.

And here is where her indictment of urban planning comes into focus: she blames urban planners for a range of sins in designing streetscapes, housing projects, and other elements of urban districts that inhibit the formation of the networks of individuals that naturally self-police neighborhoods.  In her view, well-used streets are safe streets (and vice versa), and they have three qualities:

  1. There is a clear demarcation between public and private spaces;
  2. there must be “eyes upon the street”; and
  3. the sidewalks must have users fairly constantly, a diverse set of people coming and going from a diverse set of uses.

In contrast, the urban planners of the time (and in many ways, continuing on today) planned single-use districts (e.g. commercial, retail or residential) where there is no diversity of people or uses, there are no groups of stationary people who can be eyes on the street, and for large portions of the day the sidewalks are not used. They also designed housing projects around internal, semi-private courtyards rather than facing out toward the streets. Instead of addressing street safety, she argues, they provided artificial substitutes such as playgrounds, courtyards, “open spaces,” community centers, staffed cultural and recreational programs, and other architectural and programmatic features that are used for only small portions of the day — and the rest of the day are vacant areas that attract illicit activities away from the built-in surveillance of active sidewalks. That doesn’t mean that there is anything inherently wrong with any of those items, nor does it imply that they aren’t worth having; they simply aren’t substitutes for the vibrant, diverse, all-day street life that makes neighborhoods safe.

Jacobs notes that in some rich neighborhoods in cities there is a substitute “hired network” of street surveillance, including doormen, receptionists, security guards, package couriers, taxi drivers waiting for fares, and other people going about their jobs. But she points out that if economic conditions change such that a neighborhood can no longer afford to hire those people, the neighborhood becomes ripe for a rapid rise in crime.

She suggests that people live with unsafely built/rebuilt cities through three coping mechanisms:

  • they let the danger hold sway, retreat into their homes, and refrain from participating in street life with their neighbors;
  • they “take refuge in vehicles,” staying off the sidewalks as much as possible as they move around the city; and
  • they cultivate the notion of “turf,” where an uneasy peace is kept by apportioning areas of the cities to different gangs and other unsavory groups and (often with police encouragement) encourage everyone to respect the turf borders.

Jacobs closes by bemoaning the regimented urban landscapes that the “whiz kids” and their expertise in WWII logistics brought to urban planning while destroying the organic chaos of functioning city life, and in doing so denounces the “broken windows” policies that would emerge two decades later:

Indirectly through the Utopian tradition, and directly through the more realistic doctrine of art by imposition, modern city planning has been burdened from its beginnings with the unsuitable aim of converting cities into disciplined works of art. 

Like the housers who face a blank if they try to think what to do besides income-sorting projects, or the highwaymen who face a blank if they try to think what to do besides accommodate more cars, just so, architects who venture into city design often face a blank in trying to create visual order in cities except by substituting the order of art for the very different order of life. They cannot do anything else much. They cannot develop alternate tactics, for they lack a strategy for design that will help cities…

We are constantly being told simple-minded lies about order in cities, talked down to in effect, assured that duplication represents order. It is the easiest thing in the world to seize hold of a few forms, give them a regimented regularity, and try to palm this off in the name of order. However, simple regimented regularity and significant systems of functional order are seldom coincident in this world.

This is perhaps the first-order effect we have been looking for. In places where the urban built environment allows communities to build their own network to maintain order, “broken windows” policies are neither necessary nor effective. But in the context of Jacobs’ work, we can see the broad application of  “broken windows” for what it is: a shallow attempt to impose an artificial order on city life; a band-aid on the open wound left where urban planning excised communities’ ability to generate and maintain their own organic sense of order.


So what does this tell us about Seattle, and Mayor Durkan’s flirtation with “broken windows” policies? First, let’s give a bit of credit where due: both the Mayor and SPD seem to recognize that there are nuances and pitfalls when invoking “broken windows.” Here’s Mayor Durkan’s full quote from the Seattle Times interview:

“How do we make sure we deter [the crime spikes], get rid of graffiti, clean up bushes?” Durkan said last week in an interview with The Seattle Times editorial board.

“Because the broken-windows theory is accurate, to a certain extent,” she added, referring to the idea that signs of neglect and disorder create an environment conducive to serious crimes. “People are going to be out more … It’s common in policing now to add that presence in.”

Along with that, “We will continue all the [human-services] outreach we do,” the mayor stressed.

Also, in a briefing to the City Council earlier this summer on the new “emphasis patrols,” SPD Assistant Chief for Patrol Operations Eric Greening assured Council members that the officers would not have quotas for arrests to “Terry stops,” and would not be using “stop and frisk” methods; instead, the goals of the emphasis patrols were to deter crime through an increased visible presence, and to better connect with local residents and business owners to understand where the hot spots of crime are in local neighborhoods. This provides at least some reassurance that SPD understands that they need to be supporting and partnering with local communities, rather than going it alone, and that New York City-style “quality of life” initiatives are problematic — especially for a police force working under a consent decree for biased policing. Of course, a careful review of SPD statistics will be necessary to ensure that in practice the police force is living up to this commitment.

Yet these are still band-aids. The larger and deeper problem is that Seattle has decades of investment in exactly the kind of urban planning that Jacobs railed against. Property crime is increasing in the city’s single-family neighborhoods in part because for the vast majority of the day, every day, the streets and sidewalks are empty.  3rd and Pine downtown, part of the commercial core, is a dangerous place to be at night because the stores close up at the end of the day and there is no longer a sustained “neighborhood” presence. RV’s accumulate in SODO and in residential areas precisely because there is only sporadic human presence there. Single-use districts can’t self-sustain order and will always be in danger of becoming targets for crime.

That said, the city has also had some successes; for instance reclaiming Occidental Square. Part of that was an investment in “activating” the park, but equally important was revitalizing the businesses surrounding it so that there is, as Jacobs describes, constant and diverse people and activities. Capitol Hill, while still far from crime-free, has also come a long way — largely attributable to the mix of residential, commercial and retail presences, accompanied by frequent transit service, that guarantees a diverse flurry of human activity all day and through much of the night.

The take-away for Seattle is that it needs to invest in long-term sustainable crime deterrents, not shallow, costly, short-term patches such as “broken windows” policies. Even if we assume that those polices would work (a big “if”), the city will never have enough police, nor SPU staff, to maintain physical and social order and effectively deter crime. The long-term solution is to focus energy and dollars on fixing the city’s built environment to foster vibrant, diverse, active and resilient communities that can sustain themselves without a constant police presence.


Thanks for reading to the end!  Articles like this one take days (in this case, weeks) to research and write. If you find my reporting valuable, please consider making a contribution to support my work. Even just $1 a month helps. Thanks!

If you enjoyed reading this, please support my work by making a contribution on Patreon!

6 thoughts on “Understanding “Broken Windows” Theory”

  1. Thank you for the wonderful set of links to studies linking crime with disorder. As I read your summaries, I kept wondering what Batman thinks about it.

  2. Just posted this to FaceBook after receiving Anthony Finnell’s post on the NACOLE listServ. It’s clear that you put hours of work into this paper. Thank you.

    It deserves wide readership. I recommend you share it with all college level criminal justice programs in Seattle, with suggest that teachers consider require it be read, and perhaps that students write a paper on some of your many cited resources, such as one comparing Wilson/Kelling work with Jacobs’ work.
    Sue Quinn

Comments are closed.