The “broken windows” theory from the 1980s promoted the idea that visible signs of crime and civil disorder lead to more serious crimes. The theory promotes the idea that the police should target quality-of-life crimes such as vandalism, broken windows, public drinking and drug taking, public urination, and loitering. 

The theory is called broken windows, as one of its tenets is that a single unrepaired broken window in a home, store or building clearly signals that no one cares, and so more windows will be broken, and other, more serious crimes will follow, bringing the neighborhood — and eventually the city — down. 

The broken windows theory was written in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and put into practice in the 1990s by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York City police commissioner William Bratton.

Although the broken windows theory has its proponents and detractors then and now, there can be no debate that Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner cleaned up New York City. I’m sure many New Yorkers would like to see a return to those good old days.  

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Today in Philadelphia, we see a new take on the broken windows theory, and that is the broken windows of parked cars after thieves have broken it and stolen the car owners’ valuables.

A few years back, someone broke into my parked car on our South Philly street overnight. The thief or thieves took some items my wife planned to return to a store. I called the police and a police officer showed up to take a report. I told the officer there were several cameras on the block that could identify the thief or thieves.

But for such a minor crime, the officer said, shaking his head, no detective would be assigned to investigate it.

Minor crime to you, perhaps. But not to me or to the many victims of “theft from auto,” more commonly known as car break-ins.

Several local TV news stations have recently interviewed on camera a good number of irritated residents in various neighborhoods that have seen a spike in car break-ins.

Matt Petrillo at CBS News interviewed several angry victims on camera. He noted that during the weekend of June 17, there were 100 reported car break-ins citywide, and according to the Philadelphia Police, there have been 5,949 car break-ins thus far this year.         

I recently spoke to a veteran Philadelphia detective who said car break-ins were preventable.

“Car break-ins, or smash and grabs, are crimes of opportunity,” the detective told me. “Many victims leave valuables in their parked cars, such as shopping bags, a briefcase, a cell phone or a laptop, and that creates an opportunity for a thief. If you must leave something in your car, hide it under the seat or under a blanket. Keep it out of plain sight.”

[L]ock your car doors, activate your car alarm, and don’t leave valuables in your car, not even in your trunk

The detective explained that thieves go out looking for opportunities to steal, so if they see something in a parked car, they will smash a car window to grab the item. The thieves move quickly, grabbing the item or items, and then run far away from the parked car. The detective added that when parking your car in a parking lot, ensure the lot has an attendant and the parking lot is well lit.

The detective admitted sadly that the police don’t generally investigate car break-ins due to higher priorities and a shrinking police force, and the district attorney’s office rarely prosecutes the thieves. So not only is the car owner out of whatever was stolen and stuck with repairing the broken window, the thief continues to operate unencumbered.

In my view, the police and the district attorney’s office should crack down on this so-called minor crime, which is a quality-of-life crime that can, according to the broken window theory, lead to more serious crime, such as car theft and burglaries.

A task force of detectives should be assigned to scan home security cameras to identify the thieves who break into cars, and then go out and arrest the thieves. And the district attorney’s office should prosecute them as vigorously as they can. Although the thieves will not be put in prison for long stretches, at least they will know that the city residents truly care about their cars being broken into, and that law enforcement will track them down and arrest them.

“Most thieves are stupid and lazy, and drunk or high,” the detective explained. “So city residents should take commonsense crime prevention measures such as lock your car doors, activate your car alarm, and don’t leave valuables in your car, not even in your trunk.”

Paul Davis, a Philadelphia writer and frequent contributor to Broad + Liberty, also contributes to Counterterrorism magazine and writes the On Crime column for the Washington Times.

5 thoughts on “Paul Davis: Car break-ins and another take on broken window theory”

  1. Many, many years ago, a senior police official who had just been made captain of a district in Philadelphia told me that the first statistic that he used to assess the level of crime in the district was car theft. He stated that car thefts are citizen reported crimes and all victims report them whether or not they have car insurance. Those with reported them to make their claim to the insurance company. Those without reported them because they were royally pissed off. He told me that the car theft stat was a more reliable stat than any other reported because of the latitude that existed between the responding officer and the charging DA. He stated that in his experience (then of over 2o years on the job) that car theft stats were even more reliable than anything from the FBI in determining the level of crime in an area.

  2. Moral clarity is precisely what’s needed.
    “In prevention we need to focus on developing policies that affect children and young people’s moral education and cognitive nurturing – which aids the development of greater self-control – and policies that help [minimize] the emergence of moral contexts conducive to crime” says Wikström. “In this context, one of the most important but least understood questions is the role of social disadvantage and how it affects the content and efficacy of young people’s moral education and cognitive nurturing.” Source:

    “There is one world, a dog’s world — a world of bones and kennels and chains and muzzles, and hunts and fights; and there is a man’s world — a world of ideas, of beauty, of thought. The one is base, the other good. In one, men are slaves; in the other, they are free. In one, there are oppressed and oppressors; in the other, all are equal. There is a land of the slave and there is land of the free, and the passport to this happy land is a liberal education and belief in power beyond one’s self.” – Dean Russell’s address was delivered at the New York Department Convention of the American Legion in 1939 “How to Tell a Communist: And How to Beat Him”

  3. Let’s get real here and quit with the mumbo jumbo. You have a George Soros-backed DA who is more interested in the welfare of criminals than law-abiding citizens and you wonder why crime is up.

    For the break-in and stolen vehicle victims and all other crime victims who voted for the DA and his fellow travelers…Congratulations you got what you wished for. For the rest of you consider another location that puts law and order ahead of criminals.

  4. I grew up in an era when a great deal of children was in a state of “social disadvantage.” In spite of this, they were supplied with reasonably firm notions of right vs wrong and acted accordingly. My town was not some idyllic rural community but a gritty, steel town where your asphalt roof shingles would curl at the edges when certain manufacturing processes were activated. The 1890s through early 20th century workers housing were what could be described as “grim.” My point in all this is that there was little crime as found today, I can’t remember ever having a key to our house because the doors were never locked. The kids growing up with me, poor or otherwise, had responsible social skills imparted by their parents and decent self-respect. My point? Except in rare circumstances, they all had families, which also include a live-in father and, in many circumstances, aunts, uncles and grandparent(s) living with them or at least close by. Until we return to this kind of social structure, no outside third-party program will be successful. No number of social scientists (and no amount of school-based programming) can substitute for family.

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