Cleaning up a neighborhood to safeguard against crime (broken windows or rundown buildings) is one thing. But hyperfocusing on crime rates and arrests overshadows root issues that often lead to crime.

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Print Illustration by Maya Chastain

The lifetime prevalence of depression in the United States is 20%, and the environment that people live in plays a huge part in that.

A 2021 review study concluded that some factors led to a significant impact on either psychological distress or depression symptoms, such as:

  • neighborhood poverty
  • neighborhood deprivation
  • crime
  • lack of nearby resources

Can fixing what’s broken in a neighborhood really help decrease crime rates and increase mental and communal well-being?

This theory of broken windows was introduced in an article in 1982 by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, but the original research dates back to the late 1960s. The theory states that neighborhood neglect would likely lead to increased crime. Signs of neglect might include:

  • graffiti
  • litter
  • broken windows

Kelling and Wilson put forth the idea that if you could decrease the lesser crimes, then you would likely see a decrease in larger crimes as well.

The most notable use of this theory in policing is in New York City in the 1990s.

Under the leadership of Rudy Giuliani, police started to focus on minor crimes as a way to clean up the city. In doing so, they found that they were also able to intercept those who committed major offenses as well.

This zero-tolerance policing strategy seemed to be successful, and the answer to the city’s problems as crime rates decreased.

“Broken windows, the way it is implemented, ignores the actual broken windows in the neighborhood and picks on the people who are just desperately trying to survive without adequate resources.”

– Dr. Mindy Fullilove

On paper, it may seem logical

It may seem logical that a neglected, damaged community breeds more neglect and encourages criminals to target these areas for minor and major offenses.

Statistically, it might follow that policing these areas aggressively with a focus on those committing minor crimes often leads the police to those who have committed more serious, sometimes violent, crimes.

Broken windows theory applied to policing proposes that law enforcement is central to restoring the vitality of communities. Having these individuals off the streets may have given citizens the hope that they would feel safe again in their neighborhoods.

Some community members were persuaded that they would regain control of their environments and a sense of pride in their communities, after living in an area plagued by the chaos of:

  • vandalism
  • dilapidated buildings
  • drug deals
  • prostitution

It seemed like a win-win situation.

The red herring fallacy

A red herring fallacy refers to statements or arguments that are meant to redirect the conversation away from a particular topic by focusing on another issue with a shallow bit of relevance.

As it relates to broken windows in New York, supporters focused on bringing a sense of order back to communities in terms of crime rates and the number of arrests.

The ability of the police to protect and serve the community by minimizing obvious signs of neglect was highlighted in these conversations. These are some of the red herrings of this method of policing.

Who defines order? Who is being protected?

Actions based on broken windows theory were disproportionately aimed at neighborhoods with high minority populations and lower socioeconomic status. Those living in these areas saw this as racial profiling.

This was thought to contribute to an increase in police complaints and crime against citizens by the police.

The ACLU of New York reports that between 1999 and 2008, New York City paid out close to $400 million in damages to those who filed lawsuits against members of the New York Police Department.

Broken windows theory disproved?

A 2019 meta-analysis took a look at the effects of neighborhood disorder on general tendencies toward aggressive behavior and the perceptions of and attitudes toward one’s neighborhood.

They found no consistent evidence to support that environmental disorder led to:

  • greater aggression
  • poorer attitude toward their neighborhoods
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The systems you live in can negatively affect your mental health. A few examples include:

A 2020 study indicates that people with mental health and substance use disorders are represented within the prison system at a disproportionate rate with up to 60% of those in jails having some sort of mental health disorder.

On the flip side, according to an older 2007 study, those who have been incarcerated previously are at increased risk of death from:

  • cardiovascular diseases
  • overdose
  • suicide

Dr. Dia Arpon, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Wausau, Wisconsin, says that she sees people who, “without mental health and substance use treatment turn to crimes such as stealing and prostitution, [which] leads to incarceration and worse health outcomes.”

A 2019 meta-analysis states that neighborhood disorder can negatively affect:

  • mental health
  • substance misuse
  • overall health perception

Some say strategies to clean up a community by acting on broken windows theory misses the mark on addressing the mental health effects of the population.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove is a social psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School: Lang.

She says that “Broken windows, the way it is implemented, ignores the actual broken windows in the neighborhood and picks on the people who are just desperately trying to survive without adequate resources.”

Generational trauma

Trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. This generational trauma can be as simple as you learning behaviors and attitudes from relatives who have experienced trauma, or it can be passed to you through genetics.

As it relates to broken windows policy, Fullilove states “I think what you get is secondary traumatization. People are traumatized by the set of circumstances that are happening to their neighborhoods as a result of public policy, but they’re also traumatized by being called criminals.

“Perfectly innocent people walking down the street would get frisked, so it creates a state of constant terror.”

This type of trauma can be passed down to other generations. But there are strategies that can be used to help you deal with this constant state of terror or hypervigilance.

Institutions are reactive vs. proactive

Communities of Black and Brown people who are the focus of policing based on broken windows theory are typically in areas with limited resources. Much effort is placed on dealing with increased crime rates on the back end, but this doesn’t address the problems that lead to these statistics.

Fullilove says, “the withdrawal of public and private resources from poor neighborhoods, and forced displacement of people from many public programs has led to a rise in crime, but the source of the rise in crime was lack of jobs and [external] destruction of the neighborhood.”

Not providing proper resources but expanding the prison system is an example of being reactive to the problem instead of using restorative approaches to address the problem, Fullilove says.

She adds that broken windows theory was, in some parts, responsible for the growth of the prison system in the United States due to the increase in arrests and the need for placement.

The environments people function in can play a major role in their mental health.

While certain policing strategies and policies can lead to an increase in harassment and community trauma, there are resources to help you manage any mental health symptoms that you may be experiencing.

You can check out our guide on how to find mental health support.