Broken Windows

I’m sure that everyone here has heard of the “broken window” theory of crime fighting. To put it succintly, the idea is that minor crimes like littering and graffiti breed an environment where people are more likely to commit larger and larger crimes, because it appears that nobody is in charge. It’s the justification behind many cities, including Buffalo, cracking down on “quality of life” violations (loud car stereos, public drinking, etc.) to bolster the surrounding neighborhood. I think it was also used to justify Giuliani’s gassing of the NYC homeless population.

Whether or not this approach actually works has always been a topic of debate, partially because it’s so hard to quantify, and partially because nobody goes to the police academy hoping to get out and write tickets for littering. But Lowell, Massachusettes, right outside of Boston,  did something interesting. They picked out 34 crime hot spots in the city, went to work cleaning and maintaining half of them and left the others alone as a control group. Crime dropped by 20 percent in the areas that were being maintained.

From personal experience, I don’t find this surprising. I live in a nice neighborhood in a city that doesn’t have many of them, and I think a big part of the reason is that we have a strong block club that doesn’t let even small problems crop up. But it is nice to see some “evidence”, inasmuch as it exists in the social sciences, backing up that instinctual feeling.

3 Responses to “Broken Windows”

  1. Pitt says:

    An interesting counterpoint to that would be the region I live in, which tends to have a crime rate distorted somewhat by lots of petty thefts, crimes of opportunity, vandalism, etc but not so much rape, murder, or armed robbery. Rates of domestic abuse and alcohol-related crimes (DUI,etc) are somewhat high, though.

  2. matt says:


    I don’t know how well this theory maps onto rural areas — I think that there has to be a certain density of population before areas start “attracting” or “repelling” criminals.

  3. Alex says:

    I see…

    broken window = perceptual increase of invitation for acceptance of robbery/arson

    bumper sticker that reads, “My other ride is my wife” = increased possibility of domestic abuse/rape.

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