“Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety”

Unbroken Windows

By the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia University

December 20, 2021

Caption: Cover image from the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic, illustrated by Seymour Chwast.
Image Description: A black-and-white scan of an Atlantic magazine cover from March 1982 features a cover story titled “The Police and Neighborhood Safety” by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The drawing shows a White police officer with a mustache whose head is also a building, and whose shoulders are also the street. He glances with suspicion down and to the side at a scattered group of much smaller people going about their lives, some of whom are apparently committing crimes.

George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s widely cited March 1982 essay in The Atlantic advocates a new style of policing across US cities, one concerned with surveilling minor infractions in the built environment and monitoring “undesirable” patterns of human behavior. The essay expresses many assumptions and judgments by Kelling, criminologist and consultant to the National Police Foundation, and Wilson, a political scientist and Professor of Government at Harvard University. While not always based in fact, these assertions were nonetheless received as common wisdom by many readers. 

The authors’ argument rests on a central metaphor which equates “disreputable” people and actions with the defaced features of the built environment. According to the authors, if a broken window in a building goes unrepaired for too long, all of the neighborhood’s other windows will soon be broken. Kelling and Wilson readily admit that the more informal police control they call for is difficult to reconcile with legal due process, and that there is no way to ensure, inside their experiment, that police do not become agents of neighborhood bigotry. Still, their strategies would be readily incorporated into municipal and national police structures during the 1990s, and the language of community policing and broken windows echoes in debates about law enforcement that persist to this day.

“Unbroken Windows” traces the contours of a particularly potent moment of cultural  production in New York City, with the aims of developing awareness of and promoting change in the impacts of policing in the spaces we inhabit. Understood from its inception as incomplete, the archive has been assembled in support of ongoing conversations that are reimagining what justice means—and how it is built—in the United States today. “Unbroken Windows” was produced in dialogue with the YoU’s themes of Care, Repair, and Justice during the summer of 2021 by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, as a part of its ongoing project, “Green Reconstruction.” If you would like to participate and/or have suggestions for primary sources related to this ever-present, built history, please fill out this form and members from the “Unbroken Windows” team at the Queens Museum will be in touch.