Broken Windows and Bill Bratton

The recently retired police chief’s career speaks volumes about the Broken Windows philosophy of policing

by Brendan Kennedy

On July 17, 2014, officers approached a familiar figure on the street in Staten Island. Eric Garner was well known to police for selling untaxed cigarettes in the area. In a city like New York, you wouldn’t expect such a minor crime to be a priority for police. But NYPD has a policy of identifying such crimes as “conditions”, believing that they can and will lead to more violent crimes in the future. As a result, after several complaints of Garner’s loitering and numerous arrests for selling loose cigarettes, police did everything in their power to try and erase the “disorder” that Garner represented. That meant stopping, frisking, and arresting him whenever possible. On July 17th, Garner was fed up, refused to submit to arrest, and argued with officers. In an attempt to subdue him, an officer placed Garner in a chokehold and killed him. His death likely would not have occurred were it not for NYPD policies that put priority on largely harmless, crimes. This month, the man responsible for these policies stepped aside. On September 16th, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced his retirement. Bratton was one of the most well-known figures in national policing, with decades of experience from Boston, New York, Los Angeles and the United Kingdom. Bratton’s focus constantly shifted over his long career, but his style of policing was always driven by one central idea: broken windows theory.

We’re paying student journalists to investigate the most pressing issues of our time. Pitch a story.

Broken windows theory was introduced by two criminologists, James Wilson and George Kelling, in 1982, when Bratton was still just a Superintendent with the Boston PD. These two men sought to reform policing across the country by shifting what types of crime officers prioritize. The theory called on officers to establish themselves in their community so that they could control signs of “disorder”, such as the presence of panhandlers, drunks, or broken windows on buildings. As Bratton rose through the ranks, he worked to put the theory into practice wherever he went. But this didn’t always mean the same style of policing. Bratton’s farewell upon leaving NYPD this month spoke of establishing trust and mending relationships with the community, but didn’t mention that the existing tensions had largely stemmed from his controversial “order-maintenance” tactics in the ‘90s. Still, his ideological center remained consistent even when his application of it did not. As the world of policing changed, Bratton kept in step by tinkering the focus of his broken windows approach.

Bratton’s career began just as modern policing was emerging. In 1970, after serving in Vietnam, he signed on to become a police officer with the Boston Police Department. He joined the police force at a time of change for America’s crime fighters, as Nixon undertook a massive expansion of federal crime control and began the War on Drugs in an effort to “win the war against the criminal elements.”

Two years before Bratton became a cop, criminologist James Wilson sought to define policing in this new era. His book Varieties of Police Behavior described that crime policies fit into two categories: institutional policing, in which laws are strictly enforced at any cost, and communal policing, which focused on establishing police officers as figures within the community to relate better with citizens and to understand when and where crime occurs.


If you like The Contemporary and want to help us empower collegiate journalists across the country, please consider donating here


In the 70s and 80s, as Bratton continued his career in policing, institutional theories seemed dominant. Nixon’s brand of “tough-on-crime” and “law and order” conservatism meant that community relations were largely ignored by police. In 1982, James Wilson sought to re-establish some balance. In an article for The Atlantic, he and fellow criminologist George Kelling established the broken windows theory. This theory would shape Bratton’s entire career.

In the article, Wilson and Kelling discussed how police could effectively prevent crime by combining communal and instrumental policing. Cops would become figures within the neighborhood, get to know the people they serve, and become familiar with the intricacies of their beat. After getting to know their community, the police would be able to know how best to prevent crime, gain cooperation from citizens, and monitor dangerous developments. Wilson and Kelling also called on officers to heavily police even the most minor forms of crime and suspicious behavior. In their mind, signs of “disorder”, such as broken windows, loiterers, or loose cigarette vendors, led to more serious crime, and controlling it meant stopping all other forms of crime.

In this way, police officers got the best of both worlds: they had the grounds to “kick ass” when necessary and would still be well-known and respected by the community.

But when this theory was released, the country was in the midst of a massive “tough-on-crime” mentality. Politicians and police leaders assumed that communities would approve of the police if crime was controlled, no matter the lengths they had to go to. While this attitude persists today, there are many who have adopted more progressive models of policing to emphasize community relationships. This was not the case in the 1980s. As a result, only certain parts of the broken windows theory were embraced. Policies across the country focused on heavily policing disorder, but largely ignored the community-building aspect. Bill Bratton’s reign as New York City Transit Police Chief in 1990, and later as NYPD Commissioner from 1994-1996, saw him embracing this movement.

As Transit Chief, Bratton implemented rules that were tough on graffiti and fare evasion to improve the New York subway system. A few years later as Police Commissioner, he brought this focus on smaller offenses to the entire department. Bratton oversaw a huge increase in the size of the police force, increased police militarization, and a department-wide focus on “order maintenance” by implementing the CompStat data tracking system. Bratton was forced out by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1996, but his short tenure as Commissioner seemed like a success. Crime dropped, and the programs were widely praised. To many, it seemed as though broken windows policing had worked even without community-building.

But as crime dropped, complaints of abuse rose. Nationwide, allegations of police brutality grew and incarceration rates continued to soar. Police had expanded and militarized while their authority grew, all in the name of the broken windows theory, which had come to be regarded as “the Holy Grail of the ‘90s.” Many felt that the policies simply reduced crime by casting a wider net, and harmed too many innocent people in the name of maintaining order. Studies emerged disputing the basic premise behind broken windows, and argued that signs of disorder didn’t really cause crime. Broken windows, many suggested, controlled the symptoms of crime rather than the cause.

Bratton has derided these criticisms, dismissing critics as “amateurs” and “academics” conducting “ivory tower studies.” He has defended broken windows practices as “a highly discretionary police activity” built upon “careful training, guidelines, and supervision.” Unfortunately, in numerous cases, police departments devoted to broken windows hardly fit this description.

In recent years, more evidence has emerged showing the negative effects of broken windows policing as implemented in the 1990s. Departments that continue to operate under a culture of strict order maintenance and “zero tolerance” have often been shown to be routinely unconstitutional in their practices, as was the case in Baltimore.

And police killings seem especially needless in cases of order maintenance, as the Eric Garner killing goes to show. Even George Kelling, one of the original authors of the theory, has distanced himself from its application, saying that police “have not always applied a broken-windows approach” in a way that is “compatible with and responsive to community goals and desires” as he and Wilson originally intended.

And while Bratton has aggressively defended his favorite theory, he has come to acknowledge its faults: broken windows theory works, he argues, but its misapplication has often failed the community. Whereas Bratton previously focused almost exclusively on the institutional aspects of the policy, his reflections afterwards led him to embrace the communal side as well. He described his stint as LAPD Chief in the 2000s as his “best community work.” He has called on order maintenance to be balanced by a commitment to “protecting and observing the rights of citizens.” And in his farewell article, published in the New York Times, Bratton called for an overhaul of police culture from within and urged collective action to improve community relations.

Bill Bratton was synonymous with the broken windows theory, and he was able to evolve his style of police as our understanding of the theory changed.

After the successful but controversial crime-fighting of the ‘90s, Bratton recognized the need to emphasize the community side of the theory, and shifted his focus accordingly. There is still plenty of debate surrounding his career and the ideas that drove him. Yet as he steps away from policing, one thing is certain: for better or for worse, no one has embodied the broken windows theory better than Bill Bratton.

Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas, majoring in Political Science.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

One thought on “Broken Windows and Bill Bratton

Leave a Reply