Co-author of ‘broken windows’ policing theory dies

Mar 3, 2012, 1:19 AM

Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) – Political scientist James Q. Wilson, whose “broken windows” theory on crime-fighting helped trigger a nationwide move toward community policing, died Friday at a Boston hospital. He was 80.

A hospital spokeswoman said Wilson died at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Wilson was being treated for leukemia, according to Peter Skerry, a family friend and Boston College political science professor.

Wilson wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books on various topics, but his study of police work and the importance of quickly attacking even small signs of disorder have resonated for decades. He was a distinguished scholar in Boston College’s political science department at the time of his death.

The ideas in his 1982 “Broken Windows” article in The Atlantic influenced successful community policing efforts in cities including New York and Los Angeles. Last month, Detroit announced it was beginning its own initiative.

“He’s just clearly one of the foremost social scientists of the second half of the 20th century,” Skerry said. “He was a very on-the-ground kind of scholar and brought a great insight and common sense to things.”

Wilson and co-author George L. Kelling argued in The Atlantic article that communities must address minor crimes and their effects, such as broken windows, to prevent larger problems from developing.

“I think Jim and I caught a wind,” Kelling said in an interview Friday. “Up until that time in policing, nothing seemed to work. … By the late `70s, policing was kind of looking for a new approach and community policing was kind of on the horizon, although not yet being really articulated.”

Kelling said the article instantly resonated with law enforcement and also caught the general public’s attention because the “broken windows” metaphor was so effective.

“That was pure Wilson,” said Kelling, now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “The thing about a metaphor is it takes a complex thing and simplifies it and makes it readily graspable.”

The article was based on firsthand research _ Kelling walked the beat alongside Newark, N.J., police during the 1970s _ as well as the work of other scientists. In it, Wilson and Kelling argued that policing had historically been about maintaining order, but had become overly focused on solving serious crimes.

Police had shied away from walking patrols, becoming walled-off in cruisers and paying little attention to minor offenses in communities that created a sense of disorder, such as breaking windows, they said.

They argued the crime of vandalism wasn’t as damaging as the message the broken window sent about the community, leading to more serious crimes there.

“Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing,” they wrote.

The article concluded, “Police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. … Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police _ and the rest of us _ ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.”

Police and politicians responded in subsequent years with changed tactics to crack down on minor offenses and bring officers closer to communities and their problems. In the New York subway system, for instance, police cracked down on so-called minor offenses such on graffiti, panhandling and fare jumping and saw dramatic improvements in perception of public safety.

William Bratton, former New York City police commissioner and Los Angeles police chief, said police need more than a “broken windows” strategy to prevent more serious crime, but the success he’s seen in cities where he worked wouldn’t have happened without it.

“It could not have been done without using broken windows as almost the linchpin strategy,” said Bratton, now chairman of Kroll, Inc., a risk management company.

Wilson’s studies weren’t limited to police work. He wrote extensively on topics ranging from marriage to the nature of bureaucracy and even penned a tribute to Bill Watterson when the cartoonist retired his comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes.”

In his work, Wilson was preoccupied with studying and restudying the evidence, trying to see only what was in front of him, Skerry said.

“He didn’t get caught up in abstruse theories or sophisticated methodologies,” Skerry said.

In his personal life, Wilson was also well-grounded, Skerry said, describing him as a typical native of southern California: “open and egalitarian.”

“He was just as comfortable having a burger at a joint on the Pacific Coast Highway that bikers would go to as he would be at his favorite steakhouse in New York or his favorite hotel in London,” Skerry said.

Wilson taught at Harvard for 26 years, then moved in the late 1980s back to California to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles and Pepperdine.

He later returned to New England to be closer to his two children and grandchildren.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Co-author of ‘broken windows’ policing theory dies