Updated Oct 28, 2014

Broken Windows Theory of Policing

The Broken Windows Theory of policing indicates that an area with inadequate maintenance has a higher probability of crime compared to an area where everything is properly maintained. In their 1982 article “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” James Wilson and George Kelling argue that a poorly maintained environment invites delinquent and criminal behavior. This kind of environment is the basis for the term “broken windows.” For instance, if the broken windows of a building were not repaired, the building would become more vulnerable to vandalism, or squatting if the building is unoccupied. Eventually, as the situation worsens, the building could become home to drug addicts and crime syndicates, among others. The Broken Windows Theory can be used for crime control programs.

Broken Windows Theory in Policing

Broken windows encourage vandalism and related delinquency (Image from Spitzruten).

Basis of the Broken Windows Theory

The Broken Windows Theory is based on the psychosocial effects of the physical environment on behavior. A person is likely to behave in a peaceful and non-delinquent way in an area where everything is properly maintained. A person is less likely to vandalize a clean building façade with no broken windows. However, people are more likely to vandalize a dirty façade and even more likely do so if the façade has broken windows.

The psychological explanation of the Broken Windows Theory is that people think about whether or not a space is cared for. People tend to think that a clean and properly maintained area has caretakers and guardians. The thought of caretakers and guardians discourages delinquent and criminal behavior. On the other hand, people tend to think that a dirty and poorly maintained area has no guardian or caretaker. Such an environment creates the impression that “nobody cares.” This situation invites delinquent or criminal behavior by lowering perceived psychosocial inhibitions.

Implications of the Broken Windows Theory

Based on the Broken Windows Theory, a clean and properly maintained physical environment tends to have lower rates of crime and delinquency compared to a dirty environment with poorly maintained structures. This idea is also emphasized in Malcolm Gladwell’s (2002) book “The Tipping Point.” Gladwell shows that New York was able to greatly reduce crime rates in the 1990s because of improved policing against minor violations. The higher number of arrests made for minor violations, such as vandalism, was seen as an indicator that people care and that the police are watching. This condition, in turn, discouraged people in New York from committing crimes like murder and burglary.


  • Gladwell, M. (2002). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Back Bay Books.
  • Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. The Atlantic Monthly, 249(3), 29-38.
First published Aug 30, 2013. Updated Oct 28, 2014.