Environment & Science

James Wilson, community policing pioneer, dead at 80

In this 1972 file photo, Harvard government professor James Q. Wilson is shown in Boston.
In this 1972 file photo, Harvard government professor James Q. Wilson is shown in Boston.

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James Q. Wilson, who helped pioneer the "broken windows" theory and triggered a nationwide shift towards community policing, died Friday at a Boston hospital. He was 80 years old.

Wilson and a co-author introduced the theory in an article for the Atlantic Magazine in 1982. They argued that police should also pay attention to smaller crimes, like broken windows, in order to prevent larger ones.

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 taught at Harvard for nearly three decades before moving to the West Coast in the 1980s. There he received teaching gigs at both the UCLA and Pepperdine. He later returned to New England to be closer to his two children and grandchildren.

Wilson wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books on various topics, but his study of police work has resonated for decades.

He explained his theory last year in an interview with KPCC’s Patt Morrison.

"The broken windows theory is a way of calling attention by the police to the fact that first the public likes order, rather than disorder," Wilson told Morrison. "And secondly, the possibility that by bringing order to these communities, you will reduce the crime rate in those communities."

In 2003, Wilson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's the nation’s highest civilian award. He was a distinguished scholar in Boston College's political science department at the time of his death.

Last month, Detroit announced it was beginning its own community policing 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."

"I think Jim and I caught a wind," said George L. Kelling, co-author of the original 'Broken Windows' article. "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, who knew it was true from experience, but it 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.

"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 bring down 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.