Around New England

George Kelling, 83, Developer Of “Broken Windows” Theory, Dies In NH

May 17, 2019

After Rudolph Guiliani became mayor of New York City in 1993, he credited “Broken Windows theory” for helping him clean up the city’s notorious graffiti and vandalism, and in significantly reducing the city’s crime rate. That theory has also been praised in helping reduce crime and other street problems around the country, and even in the Netherlands.

Broken Windows theory was co-developed by George Kelling, who died this week at home in Hanover, NH. He was 83.

Kelling worked with James Q. Wilson to develop the theory in 1992. The two published their ideas in a 7,000-word essay in The Atlantic that same year.

The theory is rather simple: if communities ignore little offenses against property and place, like an intentionally broken window, perpetrators of those simple offenses will essentially conclude that no one really cares, and so they will continue to offend. If petty criminal activity and vandalism are left unchecked too long, more people will believe no one cares for the community, and worse crimes will be committed.

The inverse is equally simple: take care of the little crimes quickly — and even the slightest blight and blemish — and bigger crimes will also reduce.

According to the Union Leader, Kelling and Wilson wrote in 1982 that

“[s]ocial psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

The Union Leader reports that Kelling worked for much of his career at The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. His former Manhattan Institute colleague Heather Mac Donald said that Kelling was “hugely influential” and that his ideas played a major role in police efforts that led to sharp declines in the crime rates in New York City and Boston.

“Broken Windows made policing more responsive to minority demands, and it returned it to the night watchman function, a return to civility and order in the streets,” Mac Donald said. Broken Windows included encouraging police officers to spend more time doing foot patrols on their neighborhood beats.