The Broken Windows Theory of Policing Has Failed

by Ryan McMaken

One of the most successful ideological movements waged by government agencies in recent decades has been the so-called Broken Windows theory of policing. Popularized in the 1980s by George Kelling, the theory states that if minor violations are ignored — such as the breaking of a window on private property — then those small infractions will act as a signal to others in the community that more serious crimes can be committed with impunity.

In political and policing circles, this theory became immensely popular during the 1990s and persists today, although repeated demonstrations of the forceful and deadly methods used by police to address small-time infractions has prompted many to ask if coming down hard on every little thing is really the best way to police a neighborhood.

While Kelling successfully reinvigorated the idea, the Broken Windows theory in the 1980s, was not new or novel. It was simply the latest manifestation of what has also been termed “community policing” and “order maintenance” policing.

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