R.I.P. James Q. Wilson

Blog, Municipal Government, Steve Lafleur

Political scientist James Q. Wilson passed away today at the age of 80. Wilson is known for co-authoring one of the most influential articles on policing practices in the last century. Wilson and George Kelling argued in a 1982 Atlantic article that minor breaches of the law encouraged lawless behaviour. This is known as the “broken window theory.” They argued that applying resources towards things such as police foot patrols, cleaning up graffiti, and enforcing minor property crimes would deter crime by sending the signal that lawlessness would not be tolerated. They wrote that:

“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. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. 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.”

The broken window theory was put into practice during the 1990s by William Bratton, the former New York police commissioner who was widely credited for the city’s dramatic decrease in crime. Wilson and Kelling arguably did more than any two individuals to restore public safety in North American cities. We still have a lot to learn from their work.

Here is Wilson’s obituary in the Washington Post.