Dr. Wilson was a wide-ranging thinker who was often identified with the neoconservative movement, but his ideas had a deep influence throughout society. In the 1960s, when he was a professor at Harvard University, he began studies of policing and crime, which led to three books and an appointment as chairman of a presidential task force on crime during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1985, Harvard social scientist Christopher Jencks pronounced Dr. Wilson “probably the most influential single writer on crime in America.”
In the public mind, much of that influence derived from a 1982 article that Dr. Wilson wrote for the Atlantic Monthly magazine with George L. Kelling. The article, “Broken Windows,” outlined a new understanding of how crime develops in urban areas, with small things, from shattered windows to littering to panhandling, creating an environment that is conducive to larger problems.
“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,” Dr. Wilson and Kelling wrote. “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”
The article used modern scholarship to call for a return to the community standards of an earlier America, when children were admonished by a network of responsible adults, when vagrants were told to move along and when police officers walked a neighborhood beat.
“The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager or the importuning beggar,” Dr. Wilson and Kelling wrote, “is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization — namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.”
In a 1975 book, “Thinking About Crime,” Dr. Wilson was among the first academics to repudiate the prevailing notion that criminal behavior could be changed by exploring its underlying sociological causes. He argued that attempts to rehabilitate criminals were essentially a waste of time.
Instead, he called for the criminal justice system to concentrate on crime prevention and on punishing repeat offenders with long sentences.
Another of his influential ideas, outlined in “Broken Windows,” was seen at first as a charming and ineffectual throwback: the return of the cop on the beat.
Mr. Wilson and Kelling argued that police patrolling on foot had a calming presence and imparted a sense of neighborhood well-being. Although the article was not well-received at first by either the police or academics, it appealed to the common sense of ordinary citizens.