How to Actually Fix a Broken Window

February 21, 2018 by bmc85

by Kimberly Kidani

To learn more about Broken Windows policing, check out Nowhere to Go: The Impacts of City Ordinances Criminalizing Homelessness, by Donald Saelinger, available on Westlaw and LexisNexis.

In 1982, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote an article entitled Broken Windows, which purported to offer a policing strategy that would help police to serve the needs of communities.[1] This strategy empowered officers to focus on “order maintenance.”[2] The authors based the strategy outlined in Broken Windows on the premise that that crime and disorder are linked, and therefore increasing order through greater police presence in neighborhoods would prevent crime and make residents feel safer. In theory, this strategy would empower officers to restore a community through the policing of low-level offenses.[3] In practice, “broken windows” policing is an antiquated attack on the poor that the criminal justice system needs to replace with real solutions. 

Although The Atlantic published Broken Windows over thirty-five years ago, the article still has a large influence over how and what we police today. For example, New York City’s adoption of “broken windows” policing evolved into “zero tolerance” policing—strictly enforcing low-level offenses—which in turn motivated the city’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policies.[4] Attorney General Jeff Sessions has explicitly encouraged broken windows policing.[5] He has followed through on this proclamation in his reforms of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) operations and initiatives. For instance, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) no longer investigates and reports on problems within police departments on a voluntary basis. Instead, Sessions is encouraging “proactive policing” strategies—those that attempt to seek out and stop crime before it happens, like stop-and-frisk and zero tolerance policing—which many people associate with broken windows tactics.[6] However, although some supporters of Broken Windows credit this strategy with decreases in crime since the 1990s, other changes since then—including economic development and demographic shifts—make it impossible to definitively determine how effective Broken Windows is at reducing crime.[7] Regardless of its efficacy, this policing strategy resonates with many people in the community: A 2015 Quinnipiac poll indicated that a majority of New York City voters support broken windows policing.[8]

However, even some of the original proponents of “broken windows” policing strategies like stop-and-frisk are reconsidering their position.[9] When the Supreme Court severely limited New York City’s use of stop-and-frisk strategies in Terry v. Ohio, many commentators, including National Review writer Kyle Smith, argued that the city’s crime rate would spike.[10] However, those fears were never realized and crime in New York declined.[11] In light of these numbers, at the beginning of 2018, Smith declared that he and other commentators were wrong about stop-and-frisk; this “broken windows” inspired strategy was not necessary to control in New York.[12]

The popularity of broken windows policing may have little to do with actually curtailing crime. The authors of Broken Windows envisioned police officers patrolling the streets on foot, engaging with the community, and increasing public order by preventing actions that people fear before they occur.[13] Even though the crime rate did not go down in Newark—the city that Broken Windows used to illustrate the benefits of order-maintenance policing—the authors of the article still consider the strategy a success because citizens felt safer.[14] This policing did not address the fear of violent crime or even criminals, but fear of “disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people.”[15] The article had no qualms about naming exactly who these “disreputable” and scary people were: “panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.”[16]

It is undeniable that these “crimes” that instill so much fear in the hearts of citizens are either direct symptoms of severe poverty or are activities that the more affluent residents have the luxury of pursuing behind closed doors.[17] Broken Windows’ vision of policing in Newark was not successful because it reduced dangerous crime,[18] but because it allowed people to ignore the issues of poverty, discrimination, mental health challenges, substance use disorders, and the myriad of complex and tragic ways in which they intersect in their communities.[19] Now, Broken Windows gives the government a justification for criminalizing and punishing vulnerable individuals based on implicit and explicit racist and classist biases, without providing a solution that addresses the root causes of poverty.[20]

Kelling, one of the authors of the article, has argued that readers and members of law enforcement have misunderstood his theory.[21] He states that “broken windows” policing is not meant to result in higher arrest rates and that the tactics cannot result in mass incarceration, because few people go to jail for minor offenses.[22] Instead, Kelling articulates, “they may be fined.”[23] But the model is still broken even if you ignore the potential for incarceration. When you are financially secure, fines are merely an inconvenience. When you are already poor, fines can be devastating, and “broken windows” policing most often targets neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income.[24]

Kelling also states that the use of arrest in “broken windows” policing is supposed to be a last resort.[25] Effective “broken windows” policing incorporates the use of partners in the community, including social workers, teachers, clergy, and others, to address the “broken windows.”[26] In that respect, at least, his theory has spiraled out of his control because of the high rates of arrest and incarceration.[27] However, Broken Windows does not mention social workers or teachers.[28] In the text of the article itself, there is little ambiguity: the problem is disorder and the solution is policing it.[29] Major players in the criminal justice system took this message and ran with it. Regardless of his unarticulated intent, Broken Windows was a major contributor to the criminalization of poverty.

Kelling has another compelling defense: some members of poor and minority communities also want the police to keep order.[30] This assertion is true.[31] The criminal justice system does need to address the symptoms of poverty that gave rise to Broken Windows, but not by tasking only police officers with restoring order. When Jeff Sessions talks about supporting broken windows policing, he likely is not referencing Kelling’s revised vision of collaborating with partners in the community and using arrest as a last resort. But he should be.

There are solutions to the problems and fears that the authors raise in Broken Windows that do attempt to treat the underlying causes of poverty. One example is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a pre-booking diversion program that first initiated in Seattle in collaboration with a variety of community groups, including public defenders, local service providers, and the ACLU.[32] The LEAD program gives officers the discretion to divert individuals to community-based social service and treatment providers to address the underlying causes rather than requiring that they book individuals for low-level drug crimes and prostitution,[33] Instead of facing incarceration or fines, these individuals are given access to services like housing, job training, and substance disorder treatment.[34] This model of providing an alternative response to some of the issues that give rise to broken windows policing has been replicated by many jurisdictions.[35] Today, the LEAD National Support Bureau provides guidance and support for jurisdictions that would like to adopt similar policies across the country.[36]

Although officers under LEAD still have the discretion to choose harsher solutions, and LEAD is not available for all offenses, the model is a promising step in the right direction. This program is providing a solution that works toward the order that Broken Windows desires by addressing the root causes of these problems rather than punishing people in poverty. Broken Windows sought to attack symptoms while ignoring causes and created a structure for othering, criminalizing and punishing poverty. Thirty-five years later, we need to stop fixing broken windows with handcuffs and batons and embrace solutions that stand a chance of leading to actual repairs.

[1] George L. Kelling & James Q. Wilson, Broken Windows, Atlantic (March 1982),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Justin Peters, Loose Cigarettes Today, Civil Unrest Tomorrow: The racist, classist origins of broken windows policing, Slate (Dec. 5, 2014, 6:37 PM),; Broken Windows Policing, Ctr. for Evidence-Based Crime Pol’y (last visited Nov. 17, 2017),; Shankar Vedantam, How A Theory of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong, NPR (Nov. 1, 2016, 12:00 AM), (detailing the contribution of the broken windows mentality to modern stop-and-frisk policies).

[5] Jeff Sessions, U.S. Att’y Gen., Remarks before the National District Attorneys Association (July 17, 2017), in Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks to the National District Attorneys Association, Just. News,

[6] Chiraag Bains, When Backing the Blue Backfires, Marshall Project (September 20, 2017),; Martin Kaste, Studies Show ‘Proactive Policing’ Works but Social Cost Less Clear, NPR (November 9, 2017, 11:00 AM),

[7] See Emily Badger, ‘Broken windows’ Boosters Are Giving the Idea Too Much Credit, Wash. Post. (Dec. 31, 2014),; Kaste, supra note 6.

[8] New Yorkers Back ‘Broken Windows’ Policing, Quinnipiac University Poll Finds, Quinnipiac Univ. / Poll (May 13, 2015),

[9] Kyle Smith, We Were Wrong About Stop-and-Frisk, Nat’l Rev. (Jan. 1, 2018),

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Kelling & Wilson, supra note 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See Radley Balko, The Ongoing Criminalization of Poverty, Wash. Post. (May 14, 2015),

[18] It did not. See Kelling & Wilson, supra note 1.

[19] Broken windows is based on addressing fear that stems from “a sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters.Id.  

[20] See Peters, supra note 4; Sarah Childress, The Problem with “Broken Windows” Policing, Frontline (June 28, 2016),

[21] George Kelling, Don’t Blame My “Broken Windows” Theory for Poor Policing, Politico Mag. (August 11, 2015),

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] See generally Last Week Tonight, Municipal Violations, YouTube (Mar. 22, 2015),

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] See Balko, supra note 13.

[28] Kelling & Wilson, supra note 1.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.; see also New Yorkers Back Broken Windows Policing, supra note 8.

[32] About LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (last visited Nov. 8, 2017),

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] About the Bureau, LEAD Nat’l Support Bureau (last visited Nov. 8, 2017),

[36] Id.