'Broken Windows' Community Policy Advocate Dies

James Q. Wilson, a political scientist who pushed America toward community policing, has died at the age of 80. Wilson was best known for his "broken window" theory. It argued that communities must fix even small problems, like broken windows, to keep larger problems from cropping up.

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One of the authors of a seminal policing theory has died. James Q. Wilson co-wrote an article called "Broken Windows" that appeared in "The Atlantic" in 1982. It argued that public order is fragile, if you don't fix the first broken window, soon all the windows are broken.

As NPR's David Schaper reports, that theory led to a significant shift in how police departments address crime.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's a pretty simple concept, really. The notion that addressing small crimes, what some people might consider rather petty, can eventually help police departments prevent bigger crimes, such as rape, gang violence and murder.

The strategy was on display in the acclaimed HBO show "The Wire." In this scene, when a police official is fielding complaints at a community meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "THE WIRE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And not only do we hear and appreciate your input, but we are fully committed to giving 110 percent in our efforts to fight this war against drugs and take back your street. But we can't do it alone.

GEORGE KELLING: The metaphor of broken windows, that was his idea to put that in.

SCHAPER: That's Jim Wilson's co-author of the broken windows article, George Kelling.

KELLING: What Jim and I hypothesized in the paper was that disorderly behavior leads to citizen fear of crime, which in turn leads to citizen actions to withdraw, and as citizens withdraw control over territory, the predators begin to move in.

SCHAPER: Kelling says in the 1970s and early '80s, most police departments were letting the small crimes slide, reacting instead to the shootings, stabbings and other serious criminal problems so many big cities were facing. While residents certainly worried about such major crimes, Kelling says many people also were sweating the small stuff happening around their neighborhoods.

KELLING: What Jim and I did was to give voice to a demand of citizens that wasn't being heard. And more than giving voice, we gave legitimacy to the idea that dealing with minor offenses was an important part of policing.

SCHAPER: James Q. Wilson was a political scientist who taught government at Harvard for more than 25 years before moving on to UCLA in the 1980s. He most recently taught at Boston College and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush in 2003. His work was wide ranging, but Wilson is best known for the "Broken Windows" article, which many credit with leading to a shift toward community policing.

BILL BRATTON: It was revolutionary. It was totally contrary to a way most policing was going.

SCHAPER: That's former New York City and Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton, who was among the best known practitioners of the strategy, which he implemented in both cities.

BRATTON: The big revolution of the 1980s and '90s is how we were going to do something about crime, and it was not only focusing on serious crime but focusing on so-called quality-of-life crimes, which so often when left unaddressed, unchecked would develop into a more serious crime. That's the importance of broken windows.

SCHAPER: Bratton says while broken windows is sometimes misunderstood as heavy handedness, when implemented properly as a part of a comprehensive community policing strategy, he says it has proven results.

BRATTON: The crime rates began to go down dramatically and stayed down. Public perception and fierce crime began to go down dramatically and stayed down. Police satisfaction with their performance began to increase.

SCHAPER: Wilson's co-author, Kelling, says the strategy has been so successful, the broken windows idea has been applied to many other disciplines, including nursing, education and business. He also says his friend and colleague Jim Wilson was exceptionally generous and civil and intellectually in a class by himself. Wilson himself considered his most important work to be a book he wrote in 1993 about the importance of human character called "The Moral Sense." James Q. Wilson had been battling leukemia. He died early this morning in a Boston hospital at the age of 80. David Schaper, NPR News.

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