In the Shadows of Broken Windows: The Code Enforcement Success Story

The 1982 Broken Windows Theory has been debunked by two large-scale criminology studies in the past two decades.

Policing & Code Enforcement 

The Broken Windows Theory is a criminological theory that states that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes. The theory suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking, and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness. 

Yet broken windows and the vacant properties they often adorn are the purview of code enforcement officers. Both police and code enforcement officers are civil servants and each plays a complementary role in upholding regulations, ensuring compliance, and safeguarding the well-being of residents. Code enforcement duties are focused on the detection and investigation of municipal codes pertaining to nuisances and structural integrity of commercial and residential properties. 

Broken Windows Theory Debunked

The 1982 Broken Windows Theory has been debunked by two large-scale criminology studies in the past two decades: Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City & a Five-City Social Experiment (2005) out of the University of Chicago and Looking Through The Broken Windows: The Impact of Neighborhood Disorder on Aggression and Fear of Crime Is an Artifact of Research Design (2019) from Northeastern University researchers. 

The broken windows theory has also been criticized for its potential to lead to racial profiling and over-policing of minority communities. While recent studies suggest that Broken Window policing can reduce fear of crime (one of the core tenants of the Broken Windows Theory) yet policing strategies may also increase the fear of crime, of setting the fear-reduction of social disorder reduction. Researchers Weisburd and Hinkle stress “a careful focus on “how” broken windows policing programs are implemented. Such programs must be geared not only to reduce disorder but also to prevent increases in citizen fear that accompany crackdowns and other intensive enforcement efforts associated with broken windows policing.” 

Yet the research on the impact of code enforcement on crime rates indicates that code enforcement activities have a much clearer, positive impact on crime reduction (but you probably knew that already). In fact, researchers Tillyer, Acolin, and Walter write, “Building permits and code enforcement are significantly associated with reductions in crime on street segments across all cities, with spatial diffusion of benefits to nearby segments.”

Implications for Code Enforcement

So what does this mean for code enforcement? 

While the nation continues to wrestle with the role of police, the role of code enforcement is clear: detect, investigate, and remediate code violations. While codes vary widely across jurisdictions, the mission is the same. Further, while Broken Windows Theory may have been debunked in policing and criminology, the evidence and community demand for continuing code enforcement is clear. 

Code violations of all sorts, broken windows included, can decrease crime, can devalue neighborhood properties, may lead to the decreased structural integrity of the building, are associated with negative health outcomes, and decreased community pride.

Code enforcement detection is performed by municipalities through driving around communities and visually inspecting properties, analyzing data reports such as those created by City Detect’s blight report, or investigating neighborhood self-reported complaints. In fact, an analysis of 29 cities’ 311 service requests (a total of 7,418,374 requests) indicates that code enforcement is the second most requested service.