Broken codes and broken windows: The epidemiology of serious crime

Katrina Ruth Baum, University of Pennsylvania


Crime is consistently a major concern to the public, and effective policing methods are critical to control it. One theory regarding crime control that has received much attention is the “broken windows” thesis (Wilson and Kelling, 1982). The thesis is that disorder and minor offenses will create environments that breed more serious crime. If these environments are left unchanged, the neighborhoods will continue to decay and the levels of serious crime will continue to increase (Skogan, 1990). Thus, crime control using a broken windows model requires restoring areas exhibiting disorder before they become areas of violent crime. ^ Recent research on the broken windows thesis casts doubt on the theory and its subsequent applications in practice. The first weakness is that while the theory is longitudinal—the disorder will precede crime—the vast majority of studies have been cross-sectional (Taylor, 2001). Another line of research argues the thesis is spurious; that is, a direct relationship does not exist between disorder and crime. Instead, structural conditions such as poverty explain the positive relationship between disorder and crime (Sampson and Raudenbush, 1999). ^ Given the tension between the purported success of the theory in practice and its uncertainty in the scientific community, the broken windows thesis demands further study. The underlying epidemiology of disorder predicting serious crime (Schuerman and Kobrin, 1986; Zimbardo, 1974) was revisited in this study. This dissertation used a case-control design to study whether disorder, minor crime, and property crime could be used to predict whether communities become more or less violent. Disorder was measured using code violations reported from 1995 to 1999, and incident reports were used to construct minor, property, and violent crime variables. Geographic information system (GIS) methods were used to aggregate violent crime events to the census tract level, so that potentially confounding socioeconomic variables could be controlled for in the logistic regression analysis. This study did not find support for the causal link between disorder and serious crime. Explanations are explored as to why the broken windows thesis is at a crossroads, and implications for policy and future research are discussed. ^

Subject Area

Sociology, Criminology and Penology

Recommended Citation

Baum, Katrina Ruth, "Broken codes and broken windows: The epidemiology of serious crime" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3095857.