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Law Enforcement Today | July 30, 2016

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The “Broken Windows” Approach to Crime Prevention

Jean Reynolds

My husband and I are fans of Car Talk, a popular NPR radio show about cars and car repair. One piece of advice from the hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, has stuck with us over the years: Make sure your car is clean when you take it to the shop. The Magliozzi brothers (also known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers”) reason that a dirty car sends the message that the owners don’t care about their automobile, while a clean, well-kept car makes a case for better service from your mechanic.

Click and Clack’s advice is a variation on the famous “God is in the details” quotation attributed to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—a philosophy that found its way into law enforcement via social scientist James Q. Wilson, who died March 2 at the age of 80.

In 1982 Wilson and a colleague, George L. Kelling, wrote a famous article for the Atlantic that some experts believe initiated a dramatic long-term decrease in U.S. crime rates. In “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” Wilson and Kelling declared, “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” Using a “slippery slope” argument, the authors advocated preventing major crimes by prosecuting minor violations of the law.

Following Wilson’s lead, some police departments began to focus attention on broken windows, graffiti, and other small signs of social disorder. Community policing, which encourages officers to pay close attention to the neighborhoods they were serving, gradually became popular.

In the 1990s, New York City adopted Wilson’s ideas with amazing success. For example, prosecuting “toll jumpers”—youths who vaulted over token turnstiles to ride the subways for free. The result was a dramatic decline in crime. Underlining the point, Police Chief William J. Bratton left New York to become police chief in Los Angeles, with similar results.

Many criminal justice experts were skeptical about James Q. Wilson’s ideas when they were first published back in 1982. Common wisdom decreed that crime labs and other big-budget items were the keys to protecting public safety. By contrast, the unglamorous daily routine of a police officer—talking with citizens, looking out for minor crimes—seemed unimportant.

As the years have gone by, however, criminal justice experts have kept coming back to a basic, irrefutable truth: There is no substitute for the eyes, ears, and brain cells of a professional police officer. Whether you’re officially assigned to community policing duty or not, you can apply Wilson’s principles by getting to know the citizens in your district, paying attention to both big and small signs of disrespect for the law, and ensuring that your professionalism is always on display.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including PoliceTalk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at for free report writing resources. Go to for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers.

Picture by Yvonne Griffin (firetrouble)


  1. Hi Jean:

    I have worked in community policing for many years. There have been all sorts of theories and ideas which have arisen since Broken Windows was published a generation ago. Some of the ideas have been quite extreme. As you know, many academics like to make a name for themselves by attacking established theories. Sometimes I think that the authors themselves don’t agree with the ridiculous theories they publish.

    One theory posits that the reduction in crime in NYC coincided with Roe v. Wade and a generation which was never born. The theory is that formerly unwanted children who used to be born were instead aborted. That first generation of those who never existed (instead of being unwanted and, thus, troubled children) would have come of age about the time Broken Windows was working in NY City. Their lack of existence was one of the most extreme theories of why “experts” tell us that crime went down in NY City.

    I agree with your ideas. The results are obvious. When a city or a neighborhood looks like it is not cared for, the criminal element believes that they have an opportunity. If they are not checked, they grow bolder. As they grow bolder, they establish a foothold in a community. The good citizens often cease to be active because of fear. Crime goes up.

    Neighborhood clean ups, zero tolerance for infractions, and officer interaction with the community empowers citizens to come forward. Residents feel that they have advocates with their police department. Community meetings, weed and seed events, police athletic leagues, neighborhood watches, block parties, National Night Out, and other positive police/citizen interaction increases trust and rapport. Communities thrive when they are in relationship with their police department.

    I have seen it time and time again. Broken Windows and community-based policing WORKS! Collaborative and inclusive leadership is often more effective in turning around troubled areas than top-down, command/control methodologies.

    Thanks for another superb, well-reasoned, and exceptionally well-written article.

  2. Maureen, I always look forward to your articles, so the feedback from you is especially meaningful to me. Thanks for the affirmation! I especially like the list of community connections you included near the end of your comment. I hope other readers will take note!

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