How do broken windows cause murders?

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The broken windows theory – pioneered by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling – is one of the most well-known criminology theories. It is sometimes referred to as the Bible of policing. It states that visible signs of anti-social behaviour and abandonment in an area leads to an increase in crime, including violent crimes such as murder. It was popularised by former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani – better known now as Donald Trump’s attorney – and the police commissioner, William Bratton. 

So how do broken windows cause crime? 

According to the theory, in an urban area, the appearance of that a location tells people a lot about how it’s managed. If an area has obvious signs of a lack of care or anti-social behaviour, such as graffiti, litter or broken windows, it implies the area is not cared for and that it’s not policed well enough. It also lets people know that anti-social behaviour is tolerated and socially acceptable in that area. This increases the likelihood that other people will partake in antisocial behaviour. But how does this lead to murder? The theory states that a lack of care for an area indicates a lower level of policing and maintenance – this lends to itself the idea that greater crimes, not just littering, will go unenforced. Therefore, violent crimes increase in number, as a direct result. A social study in America was conducted by Philip Zimbardo, where two identical vans were parked in uptown California and the Bronx. Within minutes, the van in the Bronx had been attacked and the radiator stolen by a family of three – a mother, father and son. By the end of the day, everything of value had been stripped from it and children were using it as a playground. After a whole week, the California van hadn’t been touched. However, once Zimbardo broke the windscreen with a sledgehammer, the second van met the same fate as the first. The experiment showed how the perception of abandonment affected behaviour. In the Bronx where such actions were normalised, the community is apathetic, and anti-social behaviour is not looked down upon, and therefore happened a lot quicker than in California. However, once the California van was damaged, the perception of it changed and people did not hesitate to engage in the same antisocial behaviour as in the Bronx. 

Abandoned van in Mexico

How was this implemented in New York? 

Wilson and Kelling suggested that the police department should instead of focusing on solving major crimes, divert some attention and funding to cleaning up areas, whilst reducing small acts of rebellion and anti-social behaviour. They thought that this would decrease larger crimes and keep the community safe. Crime in New York was soaring in 1982 when the theory was introduced. They decided to implement a larger focus on local and small-scale crime. A study in 2000, showed that broken windows policing prevented 60,000 violent crimes in New York, between 1989 and 1999. However, Kelling has stated that New York misused broken windows policing. Instead of focusing on area regeneration and reducing littering and graffiti, New York implemented a highly controversial ‘stop and frisk’ policy, as well as a zero-tolerance strategy on crime. The felony rate was reduced by 40% and the murder rate by 50%. While crime levels did decrease, evidence suggests this was to do with a variety of socio-economic factors, not due to the ‘stop and frisk’ method, which disproportionately targeted minorities and caused a plethora of police misconduct complaints. The reduction in crime rates could also have been due to New York’s economic boom, resulting in a 39% reduction in unemployment, leading to less people turning to crime. It may also have been due to the decrease in the crack epidemic, also seen in this period. Across US cities, crime rates were dropping regardless of whether or not they used broken windows policing. This universal drop in crime rates was attributed to a decrease in the proportion of males between the ages of 16 and 24, in the population. 

Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia, USA

How is it being used today? 

The true aim of broken windows policing is to create a positive community where people feel safe, thus giving people a greater sense of moral obligation to uphold the social order, rather than a no tolerance policy that causes resentment between the police force and the residents. For example, the introduction of beat cops gives a greater sense of police presence in an area. This is proven to increase perceptions of safety among residents and reduce petty crime. This in turn, according to broken windows theory, will decrease overall crime. However, if it was not the only cause of crime reduction in New York, what proof is there that it does work. In Groningen, Netherlands, in 2007, Dr Keizer ran a series of experiments in an alley with graffiti, and also in an alley that had been freshly painted. His results showed that in a situation of public disorder, people were twice as likely to litter (33% to 69%), three times as likely to trespass (27% to 82%), as well as being twice as likely to steal a €5 note (13% to 27%). This showed that public disorder could lead to larger crimes. Kelling did not support how broken windows policing was used in New York, instead he focuses on urban regeneration as a solution to crime. Dr Branas and Dr MacDonald conducted two surveys over a decade in Philadelphia, looking at how abandoned areas affected crime rates. They studied the 49,690 vacant lots in Philadelphia. Of these, 4,436 had been tended to by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The results showed a clear 5% reduction in violent crime around the treated lots, as opposed to the untreated ones. This was a huge decrease for a long term social-science experiment. The other survey was conducted on the 2,356 abandoned properties around the city. Over 600 of these buildings had been treated to look like they were occupied by owners, using replacement doors and windows. There was a striking 39% reduction in gun violence around the treated buildings. This was a permanent change shown over a decade, with no evidence that violence had shifted elsewhere in the city. 

This experiment shows the positive impacts that regeneration can have on crime rates. Regeneration is relatively cheap and cost effective. The study showed it could have a net benefit of over $300 per $1 spent, to society as a whole. As well as this, it is seemingly effective at reducing both petty and violent crimes. Not only that, but it has been proven to have other positive social and economic effects, as treating abandoned lots can increase public footfall in inner city areas, thus helping local businesses. As millions of dollars are being funnelled into projects like this across Philadelphia and the US, crime rates should continue to fall.


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