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‘Broken Windows’ policing’s philosopher dies

  • March 5th, 2012

The death of  James Q Wilson is reported by the Washington Post, with a summary of his importance. He ended the defeatist perception that sophisticated free societies just have to get used to  high crime.

Apologists for criminals assume that the New York miracle is the product of redneck police aggression.

In fact when Rudy Giuliani got behind George Kelling and William Bratton in New York they in turn had behind them the academic might of some of the US's foremost universities. For 6 months Bratton did almost nothing while academics crawled throughout the NYPD, asking cops what upset them and what would help them in thier work.

When the Broken Windows revolution came into the open it was the implementation of the ideas of a fine academic – James Q Wilson,.and George Kelling.

I went to see James Q Wilson in California in the early stages of developing a 3 strikes concept for New Zealand. Like other first class academics (and unlike the defensive groupies who dominate local criminology ) he responded warmly, saying immediately that he was not enthusiastic about 3 strikes. But he was happy for me (a minority opposition backbench legislator from an obscure  country with a population smaller than the town he was living in) to pick his brain. He joined me in a cafe with a research colleague for about 3 hours.

We covered my questions. He was mainly against 3 strikes because it was more expensive politically and financially. and in moral authority terms than a genuine broken windows policy backed by judges who would make sure the law had consequences. He thought that 3 strikes had worked powerfully in California only because it was an affirmation that the justice system really meant it when it said crime would not pay.

For the Atlantic Monthly article that launched the broken windows revolution, see here. Most politicians who refer to broken windows and zero tolerance know them only as slogans. The 1982 article is a good catch up.

Wilson and co-author George L. Kelling argued  that communities must address minor crimes such as broken windows, to prevent larger problems from developing.

The article was based on walking the beat with police as well as scientific research. Police were spending too much time in police cars and not paying enough attention to offenses that created a sense of disorder, such as breaking windows.

As reported in the Washington Post obituary the 1982 article said “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,” 

Police and politicians responded.

As the Post says: "In the New York subway system, for instance, police cracked down on so-called minor offenses such on graffiti, panhandling and fare jumping and saw dramatic improvements in perception of public safety."

It worked.


  • DavidW
  • March 5th, 2012
  • 9:13 pm

Good summary, Stephen. But check your last link — it is broken. (I care about broken links. 🙂  )

  • Don McKenzie
  • March 6th, 2012
  • 8:04 am

Stephen, Only the name ' broken windows' is new. NZ in general followed that policy in the 40's and 50's when I grew up. Seems odd that an American academic finds out that commonsense has a virtue after all.
Good Post.   

  • peterquixote
  • March 6th, 2012
  • 5:11 pm

I wish we had enough money to have Police on the streets.  Many Countries have Police open and walking on the streets. It works, well it used to work .
People talk to them, and the Police become friends and associates of the public rather than an enemy. 
Not here. I despise the present NZ Police regime. I would never co-operate with a redneck blue coat  who hides guns in his car, and has no brains .. Same with Australia. 

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