James Q Wilson: Author of the 'broken windows' approach to crime - Obituaries - News - The Independent

James Q Wilson: Author of the 'broken windows' approach to crime

James Quinn Wilson, who has died at the age of 80, was a quietly spoken conservative scholar in the fields of political science and social science who, in the eyes of his admirers, left a lasting mark on the face of America.

He did so through a single phrase – "broken windows" – which has been described as launching a revolutionin law enforcement. It is credited by many with reducing crime and thus bringing major improvements in several major US cities. Wilson's most avid enthusiasts claim the simple concept saved thousands of lives by pointing policing in a new and community-oriented direction.

The theory, sometimes referred to as zero tolerance, was simple enough: that police should not confine themselves to major offences but should also focus on the quality of life. If people were permitted to hang around on a street corner drinking, being abusive to others or playing truant, Wilson contended, then it was virtually certain that burglaries, car thefts and assaults would increase. Similarly, drug-dealing, prostitution and even public drunkenness and graffiti could drag a district down. This in turn could lead to the inevitable deterioration of a neighbourhood with a gradual exodus of its more law-abiding residents.

As Wilson and a colleague put it in a seminal 1982 article: "One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing." It was the theory of the thin end of the wedge, the argument that a stitch in time could save nine.

He was a far-ranging thinker, producing almost a score of books and countless articles on subjects which included politics, personal character, race and marriage. He co-authored American Government, a standard textbook in use in colleges and high schools.

During his long life he was showered with awards, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W Bush and serving as advisor to Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.

When Nixon was in power one of his senior aides famously introduced Wilson to him with the words: "Mr President, James Q Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say."

Labelled a neoconservative, Wilson was a Republican who none the less said he voted for Democrats Johnson and Kennedy and worked in Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. The son of a salesman, he was born in Denver and brought up in Long Beach, California. He studied in California, recounting, "I was the first member of my family for as many generations as I could count who went to college."

He then spent three years in the navy during the Korean war before going on to take advanced degrees at the University of Chicago. He spent the years from 1961 to 1987 at Harvard teaching, writing and serving on a number of national commissions concerned with topics such as crime, drug abuse, delinquency and foreign intelligence.

Despite his long years at Harvard he was not a natural fit as a conservative in a generally liberal institution. A right-wing admirer proclaimed proudly: "For many years he told the truth and taught the truth against the liberal tide at major American universities and venues around the world."

Although he was trained as a political scientist he wrote, he said, about things which seemed important about which no one had said much. He listed among his themes "blacks in city government, reformers in local politics, the causes of crime and new ways to deal with it, the differences between strong and weak families, and the origins of our moral sense."

He was noted for the particular clarity of his writing style, which he attributed to the advice of one of his professors. "He told me that if I ever learned to write clear English I might amount to something," Wilson recalled. "He said, 'Stop writing what you think is social science.'"

A colleague commended his "encyclopaedic command of data, incisive mind, great modesty and gentle humour," while a friend said: "He spoke vividly, precisely and concisely with deeply insightful observation."

The broken windows theory really came to the fore when it was enthusiastically taken up by the New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. To put it into effect Giuliani appointed a new police commissioner, William Bratton of Boston. Their approach led to a distinct drop in crime, in particular violent offences, though some have suggested this may also have been due to factors such as the ending of a crack cocaine epidemic and an overall fall in the numbers of young males.

Bratton went on to head the police department in Los Angeles, where a similar improvement took place. Last year he indicated he was interested in the job of Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, but did not secure the appointment despite reports that David Cameron saw him as a possible contender.

In a tribute to Wilson, Bratton said: "He reshaped the way law enforcement thought about its role and staunchly defended the idea of proactive policing that focuses not only on preventing crime but disorder."

James Quentin Wilson, political scientist and crime theorist: born Denver, Colorado 27 May 1931; married 1942 Roberta (one son, one daughter); died Boston 2 March 2012.

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Secondary Supply Teachers to work in Peterborough

£110 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers required fo...

Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week