Picking up Shattered Glass

October 29, 2018

From affluent neighborhoods and upscale retail areas, to dilapidated apartment complexes and forgotten dead-ends, a city’s police department is obligated to serve the needs of all. How communities perceive their police departments can vary significantly. At its simplest level, some may only look to their police for emergencies, to be there if needed. For others, a police department may be seen as invested fellow neighbors, who are called to take ownership of the territory they patrol. The Broken Windows concept is one such theory that outlines how a police agency might go about combating crime, and how that will positively affect a neighborhood. Derived from George Kelling, this theory states that if the seemingly insignificant problems are overlooked, more serious problems will surface.

Dating back to the 1980s, Broken Windows is a concept that values placing attention on petty offenses. Kelling concludes that minor offenses gone uncorrected will lead to serious ramifications for the wellbeing and stability of a neighborhood and, even broader, the community. If a storage unit is spray-painted by a vandal, the graffiti will either remain there for a long time, or it will be washed away. If it remains, the mere presence of this graffiti will likely invite additional acts of vandalism. This will in turn summon “citizen fear of crime” because the perception will be that no one, including police, cares.

Broken Windows

Kelling uses New York City and its reduction in crime to drive home the point, namely, experiencing the “nightmarish” subway. By implementing a strategy referred to as “order maintenance,” police officers began focusing on the root of the problem. Homelessness, drunkenness and fare-beaters combined to make the subway system an uninviting setting. But with new policies and officers trained to deal with the disorder, “a large scale problem-solving exercise was conducted.” This type of philosophy points directly to the Broken Windows theory. By fixing the underlying problem, the subway became safer. It was the action of law enforcement, which was the “tipping-point.” The subway system “was an ideal place to test the broken windows hypothesis: that is, one way to reduce fear of crime… is to restore order.”

Putting into Action

The Broken Windows concept can be evaluated in its relation to departmental persuasions.  Ever since President Johnson’s criminal justice study of the late 1960s, a movement entailing the concentration of enforcement efforts solely on crimes of a serious nature has had a reverberating effect in terms of police/community relations (Kelling & Coles, 1999). By being solely the enforcers and incarcerators of suspects who commit serious crimes, these enforcers (police officers) squander opportunities to promote goodwill among citizens that might be more prevalent with more interaction.

This very idea of forward-thinking and non-compulsory interaction with citizens includes identifying and correcting nuisance-natured and less serious calls in various neighborhoods, such as graffiti, panhandling, thefts from vehicles, abandoned vehicles, and public drunkenness. By understanding the rudiments of Broken Windows, a police officer will recognize that taking personal stake in the life of a city’s neighborhoods will ultimately positively affect the goings on within these areas. In short, by staying ahead of these lesser crimes, by taking reports on vandalism calls, by not looking the other way when seeing disruptive ruffians strolling along in a neighborhood, a city and its police department might be more successful at discouraging the more serious crimes such as murder or robbery.

Overcoming Obstacles

Partaking of this method requires vision and allocation skills. Calls for service compete for our resources. This makes activities that build relationships, such as foot patrol or just remaining parked in a squad car with windows rolled down for a period of time, hard to do. Shift supervisors will have the task of ensuring proper zone coverage, being able to provide timely responses to emergency calls, while still being proactive in troubled areas. Additionally, if officers are being instructed at roll-call to spend a certain amount of time in prescribed areas, other aspects of police work will suffer.

Officers are expected to administer traffic citations and investigate impaired drivers. What becomes of these actions if officers are dedicating more time to searching for busted out windows or graffiti? Not to mention, the more an officer is directed to do at the beginning of a shift, less independence and freedom to decide what he or she does throughout his shift will exist.

Leaders and supervisors tasked with finding balance amidst the ultimate edict of accomplishing the mission can either feel encumbered or empowered. What needs to be imparted to officers is the importance of taking ownership in the community, and the benefits of getting out and familiarizing oneself with the people.  If this is done, then Broken Windows might just afford itself as Kelling envisions.


George Kelling’s Broken Windows theory explains that the reduction of more serious crimes may be achieved if the lesser crimes are not overlooked.  This concept was most noticeably seen with New York City’s subway, which was transformed from blight to respectability after the implementation of the factors that define Broken Windows. With basic managerial skills and caring leadership, police departments have the chance to transform neighborhoods. By picking up the shattered glass we see, we clean up so much more.                    



Kelling, G.L., & Bratton, W.J. (1998).  Declining crime rates: insiders’ views of the New York

City story.  Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 88, 1217-1231.


Kelling, G.L., & Coles, C.M. (1999).  Prevention through community prosecution.  Public

Interest, 69. 16.                                                         

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join the 125,000+ law enforcement professionals who receive the weekly Calibre newsletter filled with analysis of force encounters caught on video, training articles, product reviews, expert commentary and more.




Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts

What Are the Biggest Challenges to Law Enforcement?  Cops Weigh In.

What Are the Biggest Challenges to Law Enforcement? Cops Weigh In.

State of the Troops

State of the Troops

Should College Degrees Be Required to Be a Cop? Cops Respond

Should College Degrees Be Required to Be a Cop? Cops Respond

A College Degree Proves What? Police Agencies Should Rethink the Necessity of College Degrees for Applicants

A College Degree Proves What? Police Agencies Should Rethink the Necessity of College Degrees for Applicants

Is the Graham Standard in Play if Officers are Charged Criminally?

Is the Graham Standard in Play if Officers are Charged Criminally?