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James Q. Wilson dies at 80; pioneer in 'broken windows' approach to improve policing

A social scientist, James Q. Wilson helped launch a revolution in law enforcement with the idea that tackling signs of community decay was crucial to making neighborhoods safer.

March 03, 2012|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • James Q. Wilsons views won favor among neoconservatives, not a popular faction at Harvard University, where he taught for more than 25 years. He also taught at UCLA and Pepperdine.
James Q. Wilsons views won favor among neoconservatives, not a popular… (Los Angeles Times )

James Q. Wilson, a social scientist who helped launch a revolution in law enforcement as the co-inventor of the "broken windows" theory — the idea that eradicating graffiti, public drunkenness and other signposts of community decay was crucial to making neighborhoods safer — died Friday in Boston. He was 80.

The cause was complications of leukemia, according to his son, Matthew Wilson.

Often called the "father of community policing," Wilson, who taught for many years at UCLA and Pepperdine University, was a widely admired public intellectual who wrote more than two dozen books on American government, criminal justice and moral issues. Former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York once called him "the smartest man in the United States."

In 2003, Wilson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

Wilson changed the face of American policing in 1982 when he and colleague George L. Kelling wrote an article for the Atlantic titled "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety."

As crime rates soared across the country, the two academics made a provocative argument about the role of police: Instead of defining themselves mainly as crime fighters, Kelling and Wilson wrote, the police should become keepers of public order. Instead of focusing principally on the big crimes, such as robbery and murder, the authors said, they should pay more attention to the smaller problems that were eroding the quality of life in people's communities and weakening their defenses to major crime.

Or, as Wilson and Kelling explained in deceptively simple terms: "One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

"That's where American policing was falling down on the job," William J. Bratton, who implemented the broken windows theory with dramatic success during his tenures as police chief in New York in the 1990s and Los Angeles in the 2000s, said in an interview Friday. "Jim Wilson and George Kelling reshaped the way law enforcement thought about its role and staunchly defended the idea of proactive policing that focuses not only on preventing crime but disorder."

The broken windows approach bolstered the rise of community policing, which emphasized a closer partnership between citizens and police and was embraced by law enforcement agencies across the country.

The theory remains controversial. It alarms liberal critics who say it ignores the root causes of crime — factors such as poverty, racism and lack of economic opportunity. Other critics argue that broken windows strategies have not worked or unfairly target some populations. "A disproportionate number of minorities have been arrested, and police misconduct complaints have increased as stops, frisks and arrests for minor crimes have multiplied," Bernard E. Harcourt wrote in his 2003 book "Illusion of Order."

"The broken window theory, which was a very subtle argument for police discretion, was being represented as zero tolerance … which was used in a pejorative sense," Kelling, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in an interview. "We were not advocating zealotry on the part of police.

"What Jim and I did was, in a sense, rediscover the past, when police were concerned about disorderly behavior," Kelling noted. "We gave police a rationale to pay attention to the problems bothering citizens."

According to Bratton, who carried extra copies of the Atlantic article to hand out at conferences and other gatherings, the theory was often misrepresented as a crime cure-all, instead of as "an essential medicine in my medicine kit."

During Bratton's years in New York in the 1990s, serious crimes dropped 33% citywide and homicides by 50%. During his tenure in Los Angeles, killings were down by half and robberies by a third in 2009 compared to 2002, the year Bratton began the broken windows approach here. Arrests for the lesser crimes emphasized by the broken windows theory — such as disorderly conduct, prostitution, small-scale drug offenses — had increased 30% over the same period.

Calling Wilson his intellectual mentor, Bratton added, "Jim understood that the style of policing in the '70s and '80s, which had retreated from controlling disorder in our streets, was like neglecting a cancer. Broken windows says get the melanoma on the surface before it gets in and kills you."

James Quinn Wilson was born May 27, 1931, in Denver and grew up in Long Beach. He graduated from the University of Redlands in 1952 and served three years in the Navy before entering the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in political science in 1959. One of his key influences there was political science professor Edward C. Banfield, who taught the importance of translating complex ideas into plain and forceful English.

Decades later, fans of Wilson would attest that the lesson was well learned.

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