Unpicking the U.K. election debates: What is the 'broken window theory?'

Unpicking the U.K. election debates: What is the 'broken window theory?'

By: naledi mashishi&
June 18 2024

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Unpicking the U.K. election debates: What is the 'broken window theory?'

(Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via REUTERS)

On June 6, 2024, seven political parties contesting the upcoming July 4 U.K. general elections participated in a live debate on the BBC. The participants included Reform U.K.’s leader, Nigel Farage, who debated election issues such as crime, the NHS, and immigration. 

When questioned about tackling crime, Farage promoted an aggressive response to policing known as the "broken window theory.” He said, “Low-level, street-level crime is rapidly growing, and the old theories about New York and how it was cleaned up were that if you deal with the stuff at the bottom, i.e., people carrying knives, shoplifting, graffiti, broken windows, you might just deal with the more serious stuff.”

Farage also promoted using “stop and frisk” measures as a solution to knife crime in the U.K., saying “We know the areas in which knives are most prevalent. And of course, if we don't do it, oh gosh, if this area has got a high proportion of people from the black and ethnic minority communities, they might call us racist. We've got to stop doing this. We've got to completely forget the color of people's skin and treat everybody equally, but we must stop and search.” Logically Facts has previously found that the implication that knife crime is highest in communities with high BAME populations is inaccurate, as the areas in the U.K. with the highest rates of knife crime have majority white populations. 

The response was posted on X (formerly Twitter) by a user who argued in a detailed thread that broken window policing led to significant reductions in crime when it was implemented in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.  

“The result? Violent crime declined by more than 56% compared to 28% nationally. Property crimes tumbled by 65% while they fell only 26% nationally. Public spaces were reclaimed, low-level crime not tolerated and criminals locked up away from civilized society,” the user argued

The broken window theory of criminal justice, also known as broken window policing, was first introduced by criminologist James Wilson in 1982. The theory argues that seemingly minor instances of social disorder, such as littering, graffiti, and drug use in urban spaces, can contribute to a culture of lawlessness that leads to more serious crimes. The term “broken windows” refers to Wilson’s theory that signs of physical disorder like broken windows, abandoned buildings, and litter signal a lack of consequences within a community and often lead to more violent crimes occurring. 

Wilson argued that focusing policing on combating these visible signs of disorder can reduce the likelihood of more serious crimes happening. 

The theory was put into practice in 1993 by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who initially focused on arresting fare jumpers in the city’s subway system. He later expanded the policy by ramping up arrests for lower-level crimes such as marijuana consumption, vandalism, and selling loose cigarettes. More aggressive policies like “stop and frisk” were introduced which allowed police officers to stop, interrogate, and search people on the basis of “reasonable suspicion.”

New York City did experience significant decreases in crime during this period, which was initially credited to the broken windows approach to policing. However, social scientists have since discredited the theory, as research has shown that other social and economic factors resulted in decreasing crime rates, and suggests the approach has little to no significant effect on crime levels, with marginalized communities being disproportionately targeted. 

Broken windows policing has little effect on crime

According to the U.S. National Bureau of Research, New York City experienced a “dramatic” decrease in crime rates during the 1990s. In particular, violent crime decreased by more than 56 percent compared to 28 percent nationally, while property crimes declined by 65 percent compared to just 26 percent nationally. 

However, subsequent research has brought into question the impact that broken windows policing had on these reductions in crime. Multiple studies have found that aggressive policing strategies like broken windows policing failed to have a statistically significant effect on crime rates. 

Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt was among the first to debunk the theory. He told media organization NPR that other cities, such as Los Angeles, experienced similar drops in crime despite not implementing broken windows policing. 

“Crime was starting to go down in New York prior to the Giuliani election and prior to the implementation of broken windows policing,” he reportedly said

In a 2006 op-ed published in the LA Times, Harcourt argued that the reduction in crime could, in part, be explained by the statistical phenomenon “mean reversion.” He explains this by writing, “Those precincts that experienced the largest drops in crime in the 1990s were the ones that experienced the largest increases in crime during the city’s crack epidemic of the mid-to late-1980s. What goes up must come down —  and it would have come down even if New York had not embarked on its quality-of-life initiative.”

Logically Facts reached out to Prof Harcourt through email. He responded, “My, my, broken windows policing is a discredited theory of policing, a zombie that never ceases to come back alive,” and added links to previous interviews he has done on the theory. 

In a 2016 interview with NPR, Harcourt explained that the theory was attractive because it provided a neat explanation for crime. “It's a simple story that people can latch onto and that is a lot more pleasant to live with than the complexities of life,” he said. “The fact is that crime dropped in America dramatically from the 1990s, and that there aren't really good, clean nationwide explanations for it."

Social scientists have since credited other factors with having a more significant impact on New York’s drop in crime rates, including a declining unemployment rate, a 35 percent increase in the number of police officers, and the arrest of criminals involved in serious crimes.  

Ethnic minorities disproportionately targeted

Broken window policing strategies disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities in the U.S. A 2004 study found that when comparing two neighborhoods with similar levels of broken windows, graffiti, and other signs of physical disorder, people were more likely to read the community with a larger African-American population as more disordered. A 2018 study found that 86 percent of those arrested in New York City under Giuliani’s policies were nonwhite, up to 50 percent being Black and up to 34 percent being Latino despite both groups making up less than a third of New York City’s population. An estimated 90,000 people who were arrested had no prior criminal records.

Stop and frisk measures like the ones championed by Farage fared even worse. Data indicates that up to 90 percent of those stopped by police were innocent, and over half of innocent people stopped were African American. Blacks and Latinos made up 84 percent of all stops despite only making up 50 percent of New York City’s population. The measures also led to a sharp increase in complaints about police conduct. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the policy was unconstitutional as it violated the U.S. Fourth Amendment which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. 

The economic impact of these policies included families being kicked out of social housing, and people being unable to access jobs or benefits due to having criminal records. This is particularly noteworthy, as one study found that increases in minimum wage and decreases in unemployment are directly linked to decreases in robbery, motor vehicle theft, and murder. 

Researchers have also found that aggressive policing tactics can erode community trust in police and the justice system, making people less likely to turn to and cooperate with police. This, coupled with the costs and time associated with clogging up the system with those who commit minor offenses, means that over a long-term period broken window policing can be more expensive and less effective at reducing crime rates.

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