Justice  /  Debunk

How a 50-Year-Old Study Was Misconstrued to Create Destructive Broken-Windows Policing

The harmful policy was built on a shaky foundation.

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of a study that unwittingly contributed to the violent and racialized policing that dominates our criminal justice system today. In 1969, social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo published research that became the basis for the controversial broken-windows theory of policing, which emerged in a 1982 Atlantic article penned by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. These two social scientists used the Zimbardo article as the sole empirical evidence for their theory, arguing, “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

The problem? Wilson and Kelling distorted the study to suit their purposes. In short, the broken-windows theory was founded on a lie.

Even in the face of direct and damning challenges by the Movement for Black Lives and scholars of policing, the broken-windows theory has maintained its hold on police precincts across the nation. Most recently, broken windows has seen a resurgence in the subways of New York, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority police doubled down on its assault against fare evasion.

By laying bare the fabrications at the foundation of the broken-windows theory, we can see what critics have long alleged and what those targeted by the policy have known to be true: By focusing on low-level offenses, this theory of policing works to criminalize communities of color and expand mass incarceration without making people safer.

This isn’t what Zimbardo set out to do. In the immediate wake of the 1960s urban uprisings, Zimbardo wanted to document the social causes of vandalism to disprove the conservative argument that it stemmed from individual or cultural pathology. His research team parked an Oldsmobile in the South Bronx and Palo Alto, Calif., surveilling the cars for days. Zimbardo hypothesized that the informal economies of the Bronx would make quick work of the car.

He was right.

Although the research team was surprised that the first “vandals” were not youths of color but, rather, a white, “well-dressed” family, Zimbardo considered his basic hypothesis confirmed: The lack of community cohesion in the Bronx produced a sense of “anonymity,” which in turn generated vandalism. He concluded, “Conditions that create social inequality and put some people outside of the conventional reward structure of the society make them indifferent to its sanctions, laws, and implicit norms.”

The Palo Alto Oldsmobile, in contrast, went untouched. After a week-long, unremarkable stakeout, Zimbardo drove the car to the Stanford campus, where his research team aimed to “prime” vandalism by taking a sledgehammer to its windows. Upon discovering that this was “stimulating and pleasurable,” Zimbardo and his graduate students “got carried away.” As Zimbardo described it, “One student jumped on the roof and began stomping it in, two were pulling the door from its hinges, another hammered away at the hood and motor, while the last one broke all the glass he could find.” The passersby the study had intended to observe had turned into spectators and only joined in after the car was already wrecked.

Zimbardo’s conclusions were the stuff of liberal criminology: Anyone — even Stanford researchers! — could be lured into vandalism, and this was particularly true in places like the Bronx with heightened social inequalities. For Zimbardo, what happened in the Bronx and at Stanford suggested that crowd mentality, social inequalities and community anonymity could prompt “good citizens” to act destructively. This was no radical critique; it was an indictment of law-and-order politics that viewed vandalism as a senseless, unpardonable act. In a line that could have been lifted directly out of the countless “riot reports” published in the late 1960s, Zimbardo asserted, “Vandalism is a rebellion with a cause.”

Zimbardo’s study claimed little immediate impact outside academic circles. Almost 15 years later, Wilson and Kelling gave it new life, building their broken-windows theory atop a fundamental misrepresentation of Zimbardo’s experiment. In Wilson and Kelling’s account, Zimbardo’s experiment proved that “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

Their misleading recap of Zimbardo’s study not only conflated the Stanford and Palo Alto experiments but also so distorted the order of events that it routed readers away from Zimbardo’s conclusions. In their version, “the car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in.” What they conveniently neglected to mention was that the researchers themselves had laid waste to the car.

By omitting this crucial detail, Wilson and Kelling manipulated Zimbardo’s experiment to draw a straight line between one broken window and “a thousand broken windows.” This enabled them to claim that all it took was a broken window to transform “staid” Palo Alto into the Bronx, where “no one car[ed].” The problem is, it wasn’t a broken window that enticed onlookers to join the fray; it was the spectacle of faculty and students destroying an Oldsmobile in the middle of Stanford’s campus. In place of Zimbardo’s critique of inequality and anonymity, Wilson and Kelling had invented a broken window and invested it with the ability to spur vandalism.

Why would Wilson and Kelling go through the trouble of introducing Zimbardo’s study only to misrepresent it? Because what they got out of the study was not its empirical evidence, but the evocative, racialized image of the Bronx’s broken windows, which had already been drilled into the national psyche.

During the 1970s, journalists frequently invoked the South Bronx as “the American urban problem in microcosm,” in the words of one New York Times article. These reports about the Bronx featured photographs of empty-eyed tenements and opened with lines like “abandoned buildings, with smoke stains flaring up from their blind and broken windows.” Media outlets thereby weaponized the broken windows of the Bronx as a symbol of urban and racial degeneration.

So potent and “unnerving” was the symbol of the broken window that one of the few municipal housing initiatives in the early-1980s Bronx was devoted to papering over empty window frames that faced commuters on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The vinyl decals the city installed depicted “a lived-in look of curtains, shades, shutters and flowerpots.”

It was the symbol of the “unnerving” broken window that Wilson and Kelling sought to fold into their theory. In their telling, the Bronx’s “thousand broken windows” were juxtaposed with Palo Alto’s one. For them, the danger was proliferation — the creation of many Bronxes — through small signs of disorder. The racist subtext rang loud and clear. Citing Zimbardo’s experiment allowed Wilson and Kelling to sound alarms over the possibility that all cities would go the way of the Bronx if they didn’t embrace their new regime of policing. What was missing, of course, was Zimbardo’s restrained, but resolute, focus on structural causation and systemic inequality.

By exploiting this set of fears and meanings, the broken-windows theory gained currency in policy circles and police precincts across the nation and globe. Accordingly, to “dislodge this boulder,” in the words of prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we need to challenge its intellectual foundations head-on. The movement against this criminological cockroach has largely drawn attention to the violence that broken windows policing has inflicted on communities of color. This is urgent and essential work, which can be bolstered by the project of exposing and then obliterating the shaky intellectual ground upon which it stands.

From its origins to its ruinous rise, the broken-windows theory was just that — broken. It’s time to tear it down.