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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.

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