These are excerpts from what could be considered the source for the Broken Windows theory (emphasis added):

[A]t the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

In the theory, this "not caring" signal escalates further and further until it becomes likely that serious crimes are as inevitable as one broken window leads to all broken windows.

The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions.

The solution presented in the original article is one of foot patrolling (as opposed to patrolling in vehicles); the community's interaction with a police officer on foot encourages a sense of security that counters feelings of "no one cares." This, in turn, helps the community as a whole avoid the Broken Windows of drunks, gang members or prostitutes.

I am not so much interested in the foot patrolling aspect of this article. Rather, I am interested in the concepts of crime escalation and prevention with regards to activities seen as petty crimes. This is the broad form of my question: Is there any evidence for or against the Broken Windows theory with regards to preventing such an escalation in crime by addressing the beginning phases of the escalation?

A slightly more focused question: Is there any correlation between action taken against petty crimes and the prevention of future serious crimes within the same community?

  • There's one example of correllation: NYC. – user5341 May 24 '11 at 18:12
  • Gladwell's "Tipping Point" discusses the broken window theory in NYC – bobobobo Jul 14 '11 at 2:22

Here is a good first article showing the link between exactly the Broken Windows philosophy and crime reduction. New York is the poster child for this policy, and its adoption coincided with an astonishing reduction in the crime rate. Given the impossibility of doing controlled experiments on a city, this is probably as good as you are going to get.

However this article also indicates that the results might not be as positive everywhere.

Taken together, the evidence from New York City and from the five-city social experiment provides no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship as hypothesized by Wilson and Kelling, nor for the proposition that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.

This article examines the economics aspects, also with less than positive results.

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