Atlantic Cities

James Q. Wilson, 'Broken Windows' Author, Dies at 80

One of the country's best-known urban theorists passed away today. James Q. Wilson created a new paradigm for community policing, one that linked disorder and urban decay to crime.

He had a distinguished academic career, teaching at Harvard, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Pepperdine University. Wison, who was 80, served most recently as a senior fellow at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College. He died in Boston, where he was battling leukemia.

In his famous 1982 Atlantic essay "Broken Windows," Wilson wrote that "at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken."

He called for a new type of community policing, on in which "police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. 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."

In defending this position, he described a 1970s-era New Jersey crime-fighting strategy. The program required cops to patrol their beats on foot. After five years, a study found that crime had not gone down, but residents felt safer. Here is how Wilson described this apparent contradiction:

How can a neighborhood be "safer" when the crime rate has not gone down—in fact, may have gone up? Finding the answer requires first that we understand what most often frightens people in public places. Many citizens, of course, are primarily frightened by crime, especially crime involving a sudden, violent attack by a stranger. This risk is very real, in Newark as in many large cities. But we tend to overlook another source of fear—the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.

What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent they could, the level of public order in these neighborhoods. Though the neighborhoods were predominantly black and the foot patrolmen were mostly white, this "order-maintenance" function of the police was performed to the general satisfaction of both parties.

One of us (Kelling) spent many hours walking with Newark foot-patrol officers to see how they defined "order" and what they did to maintain it. One beat was typical: a busy but dilapidated area in the heart of Newark, with many abandoned buildings, marginal shops (several of which prominently displayed knives and straight-edged razors in their windows), one large department store, and, most important, a train station and several major bus stops. Though the area was run-down, its streets were filled with people, because it was a major transportation center. The good order of this area was important not only to those who lived and worked there but also to many others, who had to move through it on their way home, to supermarkets, or to factories.

In the essay, Wilson also called on the police to be granted wider latitude to arrest those committing "disreputable behavior:"

A strong and commendable desire to see that people are treated fairly makes us worry about allowing the police to rout persons who are undesirable by some vague or parochial standard. A growing and not-so-commendable utilitarianism leads us to doubt that any behavior that does not "hurt" another person should be made illegal. And thus many of us who watch over the police are reluctant to allow them to perform, in the only way they can, a function that every neighborhood desperately wants them to perform.

This wish to "decriminalize" disreputable behavior that "harms no one"- and thus remove the ultimate sanction the police can employ to maintain neighborhood order—is, we think, a mistake. Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community. A particular rule that seems to make sense in the individual case makes no sense when it is made a universal rule and applied to all cases. It makes no sense because it fails to take into account the connection between one broken window left untended and a thousand broken windows. Of course, agencies other than the police could attend to the problems posed by drunks or the mentally ill, but in most communities especially where the "deinstitutionalization" movement has been strong—they do not.

After the essay was published, policy-makers across the country sought his counsel, and foot patrols and beat-based policing became the norm. As former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole told the Boston Globe in 2006, "we in Boston not only embraced [broken windows] back then, but we've expanded on it since."

But the theory had its critics. University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt and Georgetown University public policy professor Jens Ludwig wrote a paper arguing that the drop in crime in cities in the 1980s and 1990s was due not to a new type of policing, but to the crack epidemic.

They argue that as crack became more widely available, prices dropped, making dealers reconsider risking their lives and committing crime. They also pointed to HUD data that showed public housing residents that were moved from the inner-city to safer neighborhoods committed the same level of crime. 

''There's no good evidence that disorder causes crime [or] that broken windows policing reduces serious crime in a neighborhood," Harcourt told the Boston Globe in 2006.

Photo credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Keywords: Crime, Broken WIndows

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion