NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Effect of Broken Windows Policing in New York City

December 31, 2014

Does "Broken Windows" policing work? Writing for the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow George Kelling say it does, arguing that the policy has brought order to New York City and sent crime rates downward.

The Broken Windows theory, explain Bratton and Kelling, is the idea that maintaining order reduces crime. The name comes from the idea that a broken window, allowed to remain unfixed, sends a message that crimes can go unchallenged, thus encouraging more crime and more serious vandalism. The concept, first put forth in the early 1980s, is that if officers make an effort to address relatively minor offenses -- creating a more orderly city atmosphere -- it will prevent the emergence of more serious offenses.

Does it work? According to Bratton and Kelling, New York's crime rates fell after the application of Broken Windows policing:

  • New York had a murder rate of 26.5 for every 100,000 people in 1994.
  • In 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani oversaw the implementation of Broken Windows policing across the city of New York. Today, the murder rate is four for every 100,000 people, lower than the national average.
  • New York was responsible for 7.9 percent of American homicides in 1993; today, that figure is only 2.4 percent.
  • The national murder rate has dropped by half since 1994, while the New York City murder rate has fallen by six times its 1994 level.

Similarly, Bratton and Kelling explain that New York City had 5,269 shootings in 1993. After officers began targeting low-level offenders, police often found that those offenders were also wanted for other -- and more serious -- crimes. Over the next four years of the Broken Windows approach, annual shootings in New York fell by 3,300. The same drop happened for murders -- in both 1994 and 1995, the city cut its murders by more than one each day.

Are the drops in crime merely coincidental? Bratton and Kelling cite a Rutgers University study which experimented with high-crime areas in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In the experiment, police continued their routine work in half of the high-crime areas while engaging in Broken Window-style policing in the other half of the high-crime areas. The drop in the crime rate was higher in the Broken Windows areas, and it was not displaced to nearby areas.

A Netherlands study also found support for the idea that order prevents crime. When experimenters from the University of Groningen placed an envelope full of cash in two separate mailboxes (one mailbox surrounded with trash and painted with graffiti, the other clean), 27 percent of those passing the dirty mailbox stole the money, while just 13 percent of passersby stole the money from the clean mailbox.

Contrary to claims that more aggressive policing results in over-incarceration, Bratton and Kelling say that arrests and imprisonment have fallen, not risen, due to the resulting drop in crime. Today, there are 60,000 fewer felony arrests in New York City each year than there were in 1990, the state's imprisonment rate has fallen by 25 percent since 2000 and the city's jail population has fallen by 45 percent since 1992.

Source: William J. Bratton and George L. Kelling, "Why We Need Broken Windows Policing," City Journal, Winter 2015. 


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