James Q. Wilson, a political scientist whose “broken windows” theory of policing influenced a nationwide move toward community policing, died Friday at a Boston hospital. He was 80.
A hospital spokeswoman said Wilson died at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Wilson has been treated for leukemia, according to Boston College professor Peter Skerry, a family friend.
The ideas in his 1982 “Broken Windows” article in The Atlantic influenced successful community policing efforts in cities including New York and Los Angeles. Last month, Detroit announced it was beginning its own initiative.
“He’s just clearly one of the foremost social scientists of the second half of the 20th century,” Skerry said. “He was a very on-the-ground kind of scholar and brought a great insight and common sense to things.”
“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,” they wrote. The article concluded, “Police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. ... Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police — and the rest of us — ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.”
Police and politicians responded in subsequent years with changed tactics to crack down on minor offenses and bring officers closer to communities and their problems. 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.
William Bratton, former New York City police commissioner and Los Angeles police chief, said police need more than a “broken windows” strategy to bring down crime, but the success he’s seen in cities where he worked wouldn’t have happened without it.
“It could not have been done without using broken windows as almost the linchpin strategy,” said Bratton, now chairman of Kroll, Inc., a risk management company.
Wilson’s studies weren’t limited to police work. He wrote extensively on topics ranging from marriage to the nature of bureaucracy and even penned a tribute to Bill Watterson when the cartoonist retired his comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes.”
In his work, Wilson was preoccupied with studying and restudying the evidence, trying to see only what was in front of him, Skerry said.
“He didn’t get caught up in abstruse theories or sophisticated methodologies,” Skerry said.