The Broken Windows Theory

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Written by Bethany Moon, a student at American University studying Justice and Law. Bethany interns with By Grace - Rosebud. 

I sink into my chair as my elbows take their familiar position at my desk. The wind and the bitter snow shake the windows, but that is all they can do. In here, in this warmly lit space, I am untouchable. For this is a space that has intentionally been set apart. The oxygen here is full of peace, full of freedom to dream, full of creativity to express. Most of us have a space like that. Perhaps yours is the coffee shop on the corner; you know, the one with the funky mugs and string lights. Or maybe it’s the nook by the window with the ordinary yet oddly life-giving view. Maybe it’s your kitchen table; full of room to skim an abundance of scattered papers. Or possibly, like me, you have something simple like a desk with a warmly glowing candle. Wherever it is, we all have a space that turns work into a labor of love; that inspires us to create, that welcomes us in and closes the door on the windy world outside.

In one of my Justice courses this past semester, I learned of Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory. Essentially, the theory asserts that the environment we live in sends signals. Therefore, if a neighborhood is scattered with litter and rusted cars and broken windows, then it sends a signal that no one cares about it. As a result, people are more likely to partake in crime of all kinds.

  • In 1969 Zimbardo conducted an experiment examining the relationship between physical conditions and social behavior.
  • He set up two automobiles without license plates and with their hoods up: one in Palo Alto, CA and one in the Bronx.
  • The car in the Bronx was vandalized within ten minutes, stripped within twenty-four hours, and then continued to be randomly destroyed (windows smashed, upholstery ripped, etc.).
  • The car in California was untouched for about a week, that is until Zimbardo smashed a part of it with a sledgehammer. After this, strangers started to partake in the destruction, and within a few hours the car had been turned upside down. Because cars are more often abandoned and stolen in the Bronx, the experimental car was destroyed much quicker there; however, the experimental car in Palo Alto, once dented with the sledgehammer, sent the same signal that nobody cared about the car, and people began react to that signal by partaking in its destruction.
  • Building on this experiment and other research of their own, researchers Wilson and Kelling proposed the Broken Windows theory: untended disorder and minor offenses give rise to serious crime and urban decay.
  • In other words, the physical environment sends signals about what is appropriate behavior in that environment. Therefore public drunkenness, panhandling, vandalism, and broken windows all lead to more criminal acts. This inspired new methods of policing such as heightened crackdown on minor offenses like public drunkenness, as well as rapid repair of physical disorder such as graffiti.
  • An example of this is the 1984 New York City Transit Authority’s intensive program to eradicate graffiti. As a result, there was major reduction in all crime on the subways, not just minor crime.
  • Similarly, Prince George’s County, right outside of Washington DC, underwent a Graffiti removal program and experienced the same crime reduction. Another researcher, Kees Keizer, placed an envelope with money in it into a mailbox. When the mailbox was clean, only 13% of strangers stole the money; however, when it was sprayed with graffiti, 27% of strangers stole the money. 

The results of these experiments inspired new methods of policing. Instead of focusing on major crimes, police departments began to crackdown on minor crimes, such as graffiti and public drunkenness, in order to improve physical conditions and alter the signal that nobody cared about these environments. The results were incredibly positive and crime reduced in the cities in which these strategies were implemented. 

What these experiments and successful programs tell us is that the environment greatly impacts our behavior; whether that be in the context of crime or work. We take cues from the environment about what others value, and then act based off of that assigned value.

The person working in the dusty basement of an office building, surrounded by coffee stained files and fluorescent lights, is simply not receiving the same message about how both he and his work are valued, as the person working on the sunny fourteenth floor.

The women of the Rosebud Reservation are creative, important, highly valued, capable, talented, beautiful, and powerful. We want a work environment that sends those messages to them. We want them to shut the door on the biting South Dakota wind and sense that the peace they feel in that space will not fade, for with every stitch and every bead they are transforming their futures. Right now they have a few plastic tables, purple walls, and a cracked window.

We are not just renovating a space - we are sending a message of worth and dignity.