James Q. Wilson and Broken Windows Policing

Media coverage of the death of conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson on March 2 correctly identified him as the originator of “broken windows policing” and blithely assumed such policing had been successful. Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times of March 4, for example, said that Wilsonian policing had resulted in “the low crime rates that have made urban areas from Portlandia to Brooklyn safe for left-wing hipsters and Obama-voting professionals alike.”

The basic premise of “broken windows” policing is that criminals are encouraged when neighborhoods look decayed. However, if police crack down on such things as broken windows, public urination, graffiti, panhandlers, and prostitutes, neighborhood pride is restored and residents are more likely to stand up against crime. Eventually, the theory goes, criminals will get the message and give up their nefarious ways.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani received national attention when, at the peak of his popular standing, he endorsed the “broken widows” approach, but in reality the approach has shown little crime-stopping effectiveness when studied with careful social science methodologies. The approach also seems to demonize minority youths and thereby increases their alienation from the governmental system. Then, too, police lose even more of their minimal legitimacy in poverty neighborhoods. In the end, the “broken windows” approach may actually deter citizen cooperation in the “war on crime.”

Lurking in the “broken windows” literature is a rejection of the idea that racism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice cause a profound alienation that might result in conduct dominant interests deem “criminal.” “Broken windows” policing ultimately takes the poor to be responsible for their own plight and portrays criminals as just individual self-actualizing agents. Behind the “broken windows,” these are the kinds of beliefs thinkers such as the late James Q. Wilson hold dear.


This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Gordon Hylton

    James Q. Wilson was one of the most important political scientests of the 20th century.

    I am proud to say that I was a member of the same softball club as Wilson in the early 1980’s. Although Wilson was already over 50, he loved playing softball, and he was not at all worried about the dangers of playing with teammates 20 to 30 years younger than he was. Although this club was short on actual softball ability, it was long on intellectual firepower. The roster also included political philosophers Michael Sandel (Harvard), James Stoner (LSU), and Peter Minowitz (Santa Clara).

    I did not know Wilson particularly well, but my impression is that he was one of a number of post-World War II American liberals whose views took them across the political schedule as certain social problems proved resistent to the solutions prescribed by post-New Deal liberalism.

    In the mid-1960’s Wilson, already a member of the Harvard faculty, was a conventional New Frontier/Great Society liberal and in 1966, he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to chair the White House Task Force on Crime.

    However, in both his public service and his scholarly research, Wilson saw that the steep increase in social welfare spending in the 1960’s and 70’s did not reduce crime rates, as liberals had predicted it would. Moreover, he came to realize that crime itself was a serious pathology that resisted correction and impeded other efforts at social improvement.

    Such insights pushed him to embrace more controversial positions, which many of his former allies branded as “conservative.” By the early 1980’s, his theories had caught the attention of the Reagan Administration and he served on a number of public commissions in that era.

    Whatever one thinks of Wilson’s views, as Prof. Papke notes, it is impossible to deny his significance.

  2. Nick Zales

    Imagine a country where law enforcement devoted 90% of its resources to 10% of all crimes committed. Imagine a country that locked up a higher percentage of its population than any other similar country. Now imagine that we are not talking about Iran, North Korea or Cuba. We are talking about the United States.

    A decade or so ago the Milwaukee Journal – when it was still a separate paper – engaged in a comprehensive study of crime. The paper found that 90% of all crimes committed in the US are the so-called “white-collar” crimes. These are crimes that are committed by businessmen and women. So what does our country do? it focuses almost all of its resources on street crime. Indeed, the FBI does not even keep statistics on white-collar crime.

    What does this say about our country and our criminal justice system? It says to me that we pick on the poor and those least able to defend themselves while glossing over corporate crime and pretending that it does not even exist. Even though corporate crimes cause the most damage, such as in the mortgage foreclosure scandal or the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980s, we treat those kinds of crimes as if they were not crimes at all. Such a system can only lead to absurd results, which is clearly the case. “Broken glass” policing is just another way of glossing over corporate crime by distracting the people from the true threat.

  3. Matthew Fernholz

    The first responsibility of government is providing security for its citizens. At the municipal level, this means preventing crime. Prof. Papke’s social justice approach was tried in most big American cities in the 1960s and 1970s (including New York under Mayor John Lindsay), with disastrous results. As George Will once observed, this liberal approach to crime transformed New York City from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Bonfire of the Vanities.

    And contrary to Prof. Papke’s view, the broken windows article that Wilson co-authored with George Kelling made no comment on whether crime stems from an individual’s makeup or his environment. Wilson and Keller were more concerned with returning a sense of law and order to communities, not with punishing individuals. As they argued, “We have become accustomed to thinking of the law in essentially individualistic terms….[B]ut we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals…. [and] recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.” This is why they advocated not just cracking down on minor crimes, but for more officers on foot patrol, to enhance the community’s sense of security and to tear down barriers between the police and citizens. It is not anti-poor to believe that impoverished urban communities deserve safe streets as much as upper-class suburbs.

    As for the success of broken windows, crime in New York City under Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty declined by 56 percent and the murder rate dropped by 66 percent. While crime did decline nationally in the 1990s (as more states lengthened incarceration rates), the drop was much sharper in Gotham. Between 1993 and 1996, crime was reduced by 5% nationally, but 35% in the Big Apple. New York under Giuliani also accounted for 15% of the nation’s decline in homicides despite comprising less than 3% of its population. This is a stunningly successful record. (See Fred Siegel’s “The Prince of the City” for an excellent account of New York’s transformation).

    Mr. Zales, I think you might be slightly off the mark with your numbers. This data from the FBI states that between 1997-1999, white-collar crimes accounted for 3.8 percent of reported crimes. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/nibrs/nibrs_wcc.pdf

  4. Nick Zales

    I am only relying on what the Milwaukee Journal reported in an in-depth series. Even if white collar crime amounted to only 3.8% of all crimes, the sheer magnitude of the money involved dwarfs all other crimes. See, Bernie Madoff, the S & L Scandal and the recent mortgage foreclosure scandals. We are talking about many billions of dollars. In any event, “broken windows” policing sounds good but has had dubious results at best.

  5. Jessica Slavin

    The meaning of the statistics showing a decrease in crime rates in New York City is difficult to assess. In addition to the ordinary difficulties that Matthew alludes to (how to disentangle the general reduction in crime nationwide during the Clinton era, or now, and the potential other reasons for the correlation between the Broken Windows policy and the reduction in crime), there is so much underlying uncertainty in the way data is collected. The current controversy over Adrian Schoolcraft’s whistleblowing about serious data tampering in one New York precinct illustrates how the data that seem so much more concrete than other forms of knowledge are actually much more complicated information if we look at them closely.

    Another relevant recent illustration is the controversy over the killing of Trayvon Martin. Was Zimmerman engaged in broken windows policing? If so, what “crime” was he policing, exactly? Was his shooting of Trayvon a “crime”?

    In any event, what is sad, to me, is that so many years on, it remains relevant for a group of legal academics to discuss “the poor” as a separate entity or community that needs a special approach to policing. The human brain’s bias toward categorizing other humans into “my group” or “not my group” seems so often to make well-meaning policies and arguments go awry. Or perhaps it is actually the story driving all the discussions anyway.

  6. David Papke

    Regardless of whether a given urban police department subscribes to “broken windows” policing, the police department most certainly brings different attitudes and strategies to bear in a city’s poverty neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are perceived by the police as “offensible spaces,” that is, the places where the criminals and their victims are concentrated and where crime abounds. The primary function of the police with regard to the urban poor is social control and containment. For many riding out their lives in poverty, the work of the police seems like repression.

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