James Q. Wilson, scholar identified with ‘broken-windows’ theory of crime prevention, dies at 80

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said George L. Kelling was a former student of James Q. Wilson. Wilson and Kelling were co-authors of the influential “Broken Windows” theory of crime prevention.

March 2, 2012

James Q. Wilson, an influential political scientist who was a leading theorist on crime, morality and families, and who was the co-author of the influential “broken-windows” theory, which led to community policing efforts throughout the country, died March 2 at a hospital in Boston. He was 80.

A family friend, Susan Greenberg, said he was being treated for leukemia.

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.


James Q. Wilson, who died March 2 at 80, was once called “probably the most influential single writer on crime in America.” (Gary Wayne Gilbert/Boston College's Office of News & Public Affairs)

“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.

By the 1990s, police departments began putting the ideas to the test in New York City and elsewhere across the country, instituting foot patrols and emphasizing “quality-of-life” arrests for vandalism, public drinking, fare evasion on public transportation and panhandling. The new style of “community policing” was often credited with declines in overall crime in dozens of cities, including Washington, Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego.

William J. Bratton, the former top police official in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, was so impressed by the ideas in “Broken Windows” that he kept a copy of the article in his briefcase at all times.

“Page for page, it has had a greater impact than any other article in serious policing,” Jeremy Travis, director of the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, told the Los Angeles Times in 1996.

James Quinn Wilson was born May 27, 1931, in Denver, and he grew up in Long Beach, Calif., where his father sold auto parts.

Dr. Wilson, the first member of his family to attend college, graduated from the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif., in 1952 with a degree in political science. After serving in the Navy, he received a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago in 1959.

He taught at Harvard from 1961 to 1987 and later worked at the University of California at Los Angeles and Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. Since 2009, he had been affiliated with Boston College and lived in North Andover, Mass.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Roberta Evans Wilson of North Andover; two children, Matt Wilson of Wakefield, Mass., and Annie Gilbert of Andover, Mass; a sister; and five grandchildren.

In 1968, Dr. Wilson was an adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, but as time went on, he was more closely associated with neoconservative ideas. He was on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003.

“People hold him up as a conservative thinker, but he’s first and foremost a social scientist,” Columbia University political scientist Ester Fuchs told the New York Times in 1998, adding that she considered Dr. Wilson “one of the most important political scientists of the past 40 years.”

One of his most controversial books, “Crime and Human Nature,” written in 1985 with Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, suggested that there were social and biological “predispositions” to criminal behavior.

“There is no ‘crime gene,’ ” they wrote, “and so there is no such thing as a ‘born criminal,’ ” but detractors charged them with skirting close to racial stereotypes.

Dr. Wilson was the author of a widely used textbook on American government and wrote more than a dozen other books. Among his more provocative ideas were that people of all cultures possessed an inherent sense of right and wrong; that poverty, in itself, did not lead to crime; that widespread illegitimacy was eroding the nation’s social values; and that schools should shape the character of students, not just impart information.

In one of his final essays, appearing Jan. 29 in The Washington Post’s Outlook section, Dr. Wilson argued that higher taxes on the wealthy would do little to alleviate inequality.

“It is easy to suppose that raising taxes on the rich would provide more money to help the poor,” he wrote. “But the problem facing the poor is not too little money, but too few skills and opportunities to advance themselves.”

When not writing or teaching, Dr. Wilson enjoyed scuba diving. In 1985, he and his wife published a book about coral reefs.

“I often write books about problems for which I can’t think of a solution,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “The reason I write the book is not because I know what I want to say to the public. I write the book in order to figure out for myself what I think about the subject.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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