Broken Windows Theory and Graffiti

Picture a secure neighborhood in which families care for their homes, children, and property. If this well-kept neighborhood is suddenly home to an abandoned house with overgrown weeds and a broken window, the picturesque community is no longer quite as perfect. Suddenly and slowly, the stable community will begin to wane, and more broken windows will appear. Aside from broken windows, petty and violent crime will also appear. An area such as this is now prone to criminal activity and is no longer as secure as it once was.

And this is all due to one poorly maintained broken window, slight infraction that had a much bigger impact than anticipated.

A broken window is a small, but significant, sign that no one cares; it hints at the breakdown of civic controls.

Origins of Broken Windows Theory

The state of New Jersey funded a “Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program” with the intention of improving the quality of life in twenty-eight communities by increasing foot patrol of police officers in the 1970s.

In an assessment of the program by the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., it was found that citizens had a more positive view of the police officers, as the foot patrol increased the positive interactions with officers and residents of the communities. It is important to note that while crime rates did not actually decline, citizens reported feeling safer and more protected with the false belief that crime had actually been diminished. How is this possible? How can a neighborhood be perceived as safer if the level of crime had not changed? The answer is explained by the idea of “order-maintenance”.

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Residents of the community perceived a great deal of order in society because they were able to overlook fear of crime with increased foot patrol and maintenance by police officers. In these communities, there were “regulars” and “strangers”. Regulars were always present and “knew their place” (Kelling & Wilson, 1982) in society. Strangers were just that, strangers. Officers were familiar with the regulars and kept an eye on the strangers. There are unspoken rules within the society that regulars knew because they belonged to that society; each neighborhood had their own set of rules, known by both regulars and the police officers, and unfamiliar to strangers. When a rule was violated, the officer enforced the law, scorned the offender, and maintained order in the community.

Skeptics of this scenario make two assumptions. First, they note that there is a difference between anxiety stemming from a fear of true crime, and anxiety that stems from a fear of disorder linked to crime. Second, skeptics note that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked” (Kelling & Wilson, 1982). George Kelling, one of the authors of the study done by the Police Foundation, applied a unique analogy to this strange conundrum. It is generally agreed upon by both police officers and social psychologists that a broken window left untended in a building will soon be one of many unrepaired broken windows in the same building. Kelling writes, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing” (Kelling & Wilson, 1982).

Kelling, along with theorist James Q. Wilson, labeled this idea as the Broken Windows Theory. This theory does not limit disorder solely to broken windows. Other small infracts of disorder may also include graffiti and litter, for example. To put it simply, Wilson and Kelling theorized that by ridding society of small signs of disorder, the trigger to commit crimes and violence would also be removed. Testing Broken Windows Theory Kees Keizer, Siegward Lindenberg, ad Linda Steg tested the broken windows theory and reported their findings in Volume 322 of Science Magazine in 2008. They performed a series of controlled experiments in public places where they could create their own disorder to mimic the idea of broken windows. Each consisted of a condition of disorder in which a norm is violated, and a condition of order in which the norm is upheld.

The order condition in the first of the six studies described depicted an alley free of graffiti accompanied by a sign that explains graffiti is prohibited in the area. The disorder condition in the first study depicted the alley with the same sign, however, the walls of the alley were covered with graffiti. Each parked bike in the alley had a flyer attached to the handlebars that had to be removed in order to ride the bike with ease. The participants were left with two options: take the flyer with them or throw it on the ground and litter. “The cross-norm inhibition effect of violating the antigraffiti norm on littering was quite substantial. Of the participants in the order condition (nongraffiti), 33% littered compared with 69% of the participants in the disorder condition (graffiti on the walls).

The difference is highly significant [c2 (1, 154) = 20.367, P < 0.001]” (Keizer, Lindenberg, & Steg, 2008). Each of the remaining studies reported in the paper found similar results in support of broken windows theory. The researchers found that “early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder” (Keizer, Lindenberg, & Steg, 2008). Wesley Skogan also tested broken windows theory in 1990 in attempt to measure how disorder is viewed, fear of crime, and who the victims are by conducting a survey across six major cities. Skogan also used methods of observation to conduct research in the residential areas of the communities he visited.

Skogan defined physical disorders as “the overt signs of negligence or unchecked decay as well as the visible consequences of malevolent misconduct” (Skogan, 1990). Examples of way that these physical disorders were measured as graffiti, drug dealing, public drunkenness, littering, and broken windows. Skogan’s research is vital, as he concluded that both fear of crime and how residents perceive crime is positively correlated with social disorder and the theory of broken windows. He also notes that communities in which disorder was present served as a warning sign to the community becoming a victim of robbery. Skogan’s findings are in conjunction with broken windows theory and support the findings that small signs of disorder serve as a precursor to more crime.

Broken Windows Theory in Context

On April 11, graffiti was found on trains being kept in storage at the 168th St. subway station in Washington Heights, NY. New York Daily news reports that the tags were large and bright, some spanning the entire length of the train car and some three to four-foot high. Police officers recognized the graffiti, as it was reminiscent of European street art. Upon conference with Interpol, it was in fact confirmed that the origins of the graffiti were Spanish. A trio of Spanish street artists Ricardo Espinola-Martinez, Ignacio Dominguez-Robles, and Manuel Cobano-Pareja were arrested and “are facing multiple charges of criminal mischief, making graffiti and criminal trespass” (Tracy, 2018).

It has now been uncovered that on April 8, the trio flew into LaGuardia Airport, and would sneak into train yards each night to complete their artwork on the train cars. An MTA employee spotted the trio one night as they were completing their graffiti and reported the license plate of their getaway car to the police. The plates were run, and the trio’s rental car was identified. Upon arrest, the trio apologized for the damage they had left. Despite making bail for this first arrest, the men were arrested again for another charge of graffiti in Manhattan. In total, the men caused about $10,000 worth of damage (Tracy, 2018). The police officers are enforcing the ideas of broken windows theory in this case. By upholding the standard that graffiti is illegal, they are trying to maintain order in the community. The trio caused a substantial amount of damage to the train cars. If the cars were to be in use with this graffiti, they would present a negative image, one that is the opposite of what the city of New York wants its residents to see.

The city upholds a strict policy of punishing misdemeanors and maintaining order. A recent crackdown of the NYC style policing has also impacted countries across the globe, as they are beginning to recognize the positive impact that occurs when the ideas of broken windows theory are upheld. By holding the trio accountable for their actions, the police officers are sending a message to the general public that this crime will not be tolerated, and that order must be maintained. If something like this was to fall through the cracks, society would begin to get the idea that order is not maintained and little slip-ups such as this incident are acceptable.

As mentioned before, one broken window left unrepaired will soon by one of many unrepaired broken windows. This puts residents into the mindset that society does not care to maintain order and provokes an atmosphere in which crime can occur. Thus, broken windows must be repaired, and graffiti artists must be reprimanded for breaking the law so to maintain order. Conclusion When a broken window is left untended, it serves as a small, but significant, sign that no one cares and hints at the breakdown of civic controls. An area home to a broken window is now prone to criminal activity and is no longer as secure as it once was. George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory has been supported by research and empirical studies. It also serves as an explanation in the case of the trio of Spanish graffiti artists. In a society where order is maintained, petty and violent crime will not appear.

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Broken Windows Theory and Graffiti. (2021, Nov 16). Retrieved from

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