The ‘Broken Windows’ Debate Survives Its Creators

The theory, introduced in a 1982 Atlantic article, that maintaining order could reduce the incidence of serious crimes remains contentious 35 years later.

George L. Kelling with Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee in 2012 (Carlos Osorio / AP)

“Consider a building with a few broken windows,” wrote James Q. Wilson, a government professor at Harvard University, and George L. Kelling, a criminal-justice professor at Rutgers University, in a 1982 article for The Atlantic. “If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.” Disorder, in other words, led to serious crime. Wilson and Kelling posed a revolutionary theory: If the original windows were repaired, the escalating string of crimes that followed might be checked before it began.

Kelling died this week; Wilson, in 2012. Their theory has been celebrated by some, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former NYPD Chief William Bratton, as the driving force behind a historic reduction in crime in New York City in the 1990s. It’s also been questioned by many sociologists and criminologists, and associated with controversial policing practices such as New York’s “stop and frisk” program. For years, Kelling participated in the debate his work had sparked, clarifying his and Wilson’s reasoning and criticizing some of the ways others applied it. Now, that debate will continue without him.

Kelling described their thinking while writing the original article in a 2015 essay titled “An Author’s Brief History of an Idea.” “Although we believed that police should do something about disorder,” he wrote, “at that time we were not sure what—concerned as we were about issues of justice, equity, and racism and limited by the state of police thinking of the time.” They knew that the history of policing in America was rife with abuses of African American communities, he added in a follow-up piece, including the arrests and convictions of black men for minor crimes under the Black Codes. They also knew that their theory would likely ignite controversy, and could lead to accusations of racial profiling, or worse.

“How do we insure … that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?” they wrote. “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.”

In spite of America’s long history of law-enforcement officers abusing their power and the danger of its repetition, they believed that, as they wrote in the Atlantic article, police officers should not just be “crime fighters” but should revive their historical roles maintaining order and preventing crime as well. “We must return to our long-abandoned view,” they wrote, “that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals.” And with that training and supervision, that clear sense of limits, they believed that officers could be valuable community partners in the effort to maintain order and prevent crime.

Kelling reflected that, for him, this idea was born out of time spent with citizens in “tough areas” of American cities while serving as a consultant to the National Police Foundation in the early 1970s. Though surrounded by more serious crimes, he wrote, “poor residents” would often list “minor problems” such as “graffiti” or “youths drinking in parks” among their greatest concerns when asked. Even amid accusations that broken-window policing has “run amok” in the present day, he noted, “the demand for order remains high in minority and poor communities.”

Kelling argued that his and Wilson’s theory had been “largely misunderstood” by both critics and supporters, and misapplied by law-enforcement agencies. They had never meant it as a “high-arrest program,” and, he contended, it wasn’t; “few people go to jail” for the minor offenses the theory highlighted. A 2013 report by the Brennan Center for Justice actually found that its implementation had reduced incarceration in the state of New York. “Stop and frisk” programs were not a form of broken-window policing, he went on, though they were often associated with it, because broken-window policing focused solely on illegal, and not just suspicious, behavior. He saw the sometimes aggressive excesses of both “stop and frisk” and broken-window policing as an example of law-enforcement agencies adopting “order-maintenance policies and tactics that are not firmly grounded within a community-policing strategy.” And he argued that those excesses betrayed his and Wilson’s vision for a return of preventative policing rooted within the community itself, precisely as they themselves had worried might happen.

“A lot of sins have been committed in the name of ‘broken windows,’” Kelling reflected. But he still believed that the idea had merit, and that, if implemented correctly, it could help make communities safer. Following his death, police officers, scholars, and activists are left to grapple with that belief, and those sins. Thirty-five years after the original article was published, its legacy remains a subject of active debate—one that Kelling, despite his efforts, could never wholly settle.