Skip to content

Private Conflict, Not Broken Windows

Why community policing should focus on helping to resolve personal and domestic disputes, not signs of physical decay.
relates to Private Conflict, Not Broken Windows
Rebecca Cook / REUTERS

More than three decades ago, The Atlantic published a path-breaking essay that introduced the theory of “broken windows” to a broad audience. Its authors, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, advocated for a fundamental shift in law enforcement: away from simply apprehending criminals and toward mitigating the visual symbols of urban disorder like loitering, public drunkenness, panhandlers, “squeegee men,” run-down buildings, and litter- and graffiti-strewn neighborhoods. Their basic metaphor was captured in a simple phrase: “One broken window becomes many.”

The latest study by criminologists Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien and Robert J. Sampson, published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, adds yet more nuance to the critical debate that continues to surround broken windows theory today. The study poses three key questions: To what degree does disorder contribute to the ongoing decline of a neighborhood? If so, what features of it matter? And what are the major pathways that connect disorder to neighborhood decline and, ultimately, to crime?