fb-pixel Skip to main content

Study questions ‘broken windows’ theory of policing

A study by a Boston research group based on an analysis of a massive amount of data from Boston raises new questions in the national debate about the influential “broken windows” theory of policing.

The broken windows theory posits that low-level crimes, such as graffiti, panhandling, or littering, create an atmosphere of lawlessness in a neighborhood, encouraging more serious crimes.

The study by the Boston Area Research Initiative found that the root of violence may instead be found in the escalation of interpersonal conflict, such as domestic violence, arguments over money, or landlord-tenant disputes.

“Rather than the outside cues that are encouraging criminals into the neighborhoods, the findings suggest another potential interpretation: the notion of private conflict bubbling up and leading up to social disorder,” said Robert Sampson, a Harvard University professor who co-authored the report.


The researchers analyzed Boston 311 calls (in which people can register complaints about graffiti, broken sidewalks, or darkened streetlights) and 911 calls in 2011.

They amassed more than 1.2 million records and used sophisticated big data analytical techniques to try to determine how different factors were related.

“It’s a whole different way of thinking about how violent crime comes from a community,” said co-author Dan O’Brien, a professor at Northeastern University.

There’s debate among academics on whether the broken windows theory is valid, said Anthony Braga, a senior research fellow in the criminal justice program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Some studies, like O’Brien’s and Sampson’s, seem to disprove it. Other studies — including ones that looked at what happened after police departments adapted the model — appear to support it. “These studies suggest that police efforts to clean up physical and social disorder do reduce crime,” Braga said in an e-mail.

While it’s been questioned, the broken windows theory has been highly influential in urban policy and policing for the past several decades. The theory had a major influence on policies in New York and Los Angeles. Its proponents have included New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, who has led the New York, Los Angeles, and Boston departments.


In 2006, then-Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino cited the broken windows theory in the announcement of misdemeanor citations booklets given to community police officers.

“For those of us familiar with the Broken Window theory and reality, we know that these kinds of community disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow,” Menino said in a statement.

Then-Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis told the Globe in 2009 that he had created “safe street teams” to target disorder in 10 crime hot spots, saying officers had “a special number to City Hall to call for removal of graffiti, any kind of disorder, any broken windows, any trash in the street.”

The Boston police currently do not subscribe to the broken windows theory of policing, opting instead to focus on community policing and gathering information about serious offenders in the city, said Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, a department spokesman.

Sampson, the new study’s co-author, said the results raise important questions.

The report found that private conflicts such as “friendship disputes over money or girlfriends, can and do spill over into public spaces, be it on front stoops or street corners, in bars or local parks.” And the escalation of these disputes leads to gun violence in and outside of the home, the report found.


“The emphasis [under broken windows policing] was on these public cues. If it’s really more about internal processes, that’s a fundamental shift in thinking,” Sampson said.

Social services workers in Boston’s neighborhoods said the study’s findings reflect what they see as the root of criminal behavior in the city.

“We have found that interpersonal conflict, home dynamics, exposure to trauma — a lot of what the report points to — are the drivers of violent behavior in the people we serve,” said John Ward, director of external affairs at the crime intervention nonprofit Roca. The new study “confirms what we think is the right approach: law enforcement in tandem with social services.”

Rachel Corey, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, agreed, saying in an e-mail, “If we’re going to address crime, we need to think about a more upstream approach than leaving the burden on police. Crime prevention needs to start through strengthening community bonds.”

Catherine Cloutier can be reached at catherine.cloutier@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.