Blinds drawn on broken windows

He wasn’t a household name, unless your household contains a criminologist. Even so, the passing of James Q. Wilson earlier this week is worthy of note. Wilson was a rare academic whose work transformed American culture. He was the kind of conservative intellectual whose bearing and poise just seemed to elicit superlatives.

As part of his tribute to Wilson, George Will shared an anecdote from the Nixon era, “[Wilson would] occasionally visit his friend and Harvard colleague Pat Moynihan at the White House when Moynihan was President Nixon’s domestic policy adviser. Once Moynihan took him to Nixon and said, ‘Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.’”

Moynihan was correct. Wilson’s keen intellect gave him a facility to assist policymakers few in the academy ever command. A case in point is New York City. Many attribute the wholesale transformation of the Big Apple during the 1990s to the pioneering insight and advocacy of Wilson and his research partner, George L. Kelling. From 1993 to 2001, New York went from an murderous shooting gallery to the nation’s safest large city. Whether Wilson’s intercession directly affected crime there is the subject of scholarly debate. What is more certain is Wilson’s influence on modern policing. In March 1982, Wilson and Kelling published a lengthy treatise in Atlantic Monthly. The article, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” represents a watershed in American policing.

While most beat cops construe their job as one of “law enforcement” the data overwhelmingly show police are more centrally engaged in order maintenance. This is to say they spend the bulk of their time dealing with matters that may have only an oblique bearing on criminal laws. They focus on small acts of incivility, rudeness and petty grievance that combine to strip communities of their comity. Wilson and Kelling amplified ideas about the importance of order maintenance into a new theory of policing. In dangerous over-simplification, they argue small offenses (loitering, public drunkenness, loud noise, etc.) when left unchecked, send a signal that no one cares what happens “here.” Extending the logic, it must then be okay to commit incrementally greater offenses… until one has the aforementioned terror of 1980s New York. The old poem “For Want of a Nail,” provides a good parallel. In essence, when little things go untended, they pave the way for great troubles. Drawing inspiration from Wilson and Kelling, police agencies nationwide began campaigns of “aggressive order maintenance.” Under this paradigm, Otis is no longer just the town drunk. He becomes the symbolic crack in the social armor. His presence is no longer merely an occasion of low behavior; it is the harbinger chaos. In the 30 years since the original publication of Broken Windows a lot has changed in American society. We have weathered economic booms and busts, wars, terrorism, AIDS, crack, meth, the rise of the internet, iPods, cell phones… Even so, many police agencies still cling to aggressive order maintenance.

For whatever zealous devotion the movement still elicits in policing, criminal justice scholars remain divided. Gary Stewart, writing in the Yale Law Journal, contends Broken Windows policing can have unintended negative consequences for minorities, “The central drawback of the approaches advanced by Wilson, Kelling, and Kennedy rests in their shared blindness to the potentially harmful impact of broad police discretion on minority communities.” Similarly, David Thacher attacks the approach on the grounds it confuses causality with correlation. Several economists including John Lott, Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner have all cast doubts on the efficacy of order maintenance policing.

Of the critics, Thacher makes the most compelling point: order is important, but communities themselves should be the guardians of it, not the police. This in itself gets to a core principle of life in society: rectitude must be grown and nurtured from within. It cannot be tacked on afterward. We see this the world over as few “peacekeepers” ever seem to keep much peace.

Wherever he may now be, I hope Wilson has found his peace.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via