March 1982 | Broken Windows Theory


“Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”

—George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, 1982

In March of 1982, The Atlantic Monthly published “Broken Windows: the Police and Neighborhood Safety” by sociologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson.  The authors drew on established ideas about community policing and some recent studies on foot patrols to set forward a simple idea about law enforcement’s role in a community. Officers were not just crime-fighters. They helped maintain order, and that order was vital to a community’s survival. “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” Kelling and Wilson surmised. Officers could help repair those windows and make sure no more were broken.

The influential article proposed more foot patrols to allow for more face to face and informal interactions between officers and the public. It also stressed a targeted analysis of neighborhoods to determine which ones would benefit the most from this approach:

“Some neighborhoods are so demoralized and crime-ridden as to make foot patrol useless; the best the police can do with limited resources is respond to the enormous number of calls for service. Other neighborhoods are so stable and serene as to make foot patrol unnecessary. The key is to identify neighborhoods at the tipping point—where the public order is deteriorating but not unreclaimable, where the streets are used frequently but by apprehensive people, where a window is likely to be broken at any time, and must quickly be fixed if all are not to be shattered.”

Kelling and Wilson’s broken window metaphor proved to be a powerful rephrasing of the tenets of community policing, and it continued to influence law enforcement policy and procedure for decades. While criticized for downplaying the rights of the individual, Broken Windows reaffirmed the importance of community and the police: “Above all, we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.”