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James Q. Wilson, coauthor of the broken window theory

His ‘Broken Windows’ theory helped reduce crime


Three decades ago, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling collaborated to examine whether increasing police foot patrols would lower the crime rate in rough neighborhoods.

As they co-wrote an influential Atlantic Monthly article that would become a touchstone for the community policing movement, Dr. Wilson seized on the image of a shattered pane of glass, a potent symbol of urban decay. Broken-down cars and buildings could breed neighborhoods rife with neglect, but police visibility might keep disorder at bay.

“Police ought to protect communities as well as individuals,’’ Dr. Wilson and Kelling wrote in “Broken Windows,’’ which appeared in 1982. “Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. 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.’’

Dr. Wilson, a longtime Harvard University professor who returned to Boston a few years ago after a two-decade sojourn teaching in his home state of California, died yesterday in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 80, lived in North Andover, and had been treated for leukemia.


Kelling and Dr. Wilson wrote that “at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence.

“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. 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. (It has always been fun.)’’


Addressing that first broken window became an approach policy-makers embraced, among them William J. Bratton, who has served as police commissioner in Boston and New York City and as police chief in Los Angeles.

Politicians were just as moved. “I read it and it hit me,’’ Kevin White, then mayor of Boston, told the Globe in November 1982 as he insisted on more foot patrols by the Police Department.

Though considered one of the nation’s most significant thinkers about crime, Dr. Wilson wrote more than a dozen books that examined many topics, and he did not try to avoid controversy.

“In an era when there were all sorts of topics people would shy away from because they would ruffle feathers or make them unpopular among colleagues, Jim was prepared to say whatever he wanted to say on any topic he felt was of interest, and that was extremely rare among academicians,’’ said Charles Murray, coauthor of the 1994 book “The Bell Curve.’’

Dr. Wilson “was one of the first public policy analysts, as well as one of the best,’’ Murray said. “He was the role model, and he did it better than just about anyone.’’

Kelling called Dr. Wilson “one of the keenest intellectuals of this generation.’’

He added that Dr. Wilson’s decision to use the image of broken windows for their Atlantic article was “one thing that has given it such legs.’’

“A metaphor says something difficult in just a few words, and he deserves full credit for that,’’ Kelling said.


President George W. Bush awarded Dr. Wilson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, saying that no matter the subject, “James Q. Wilson writes with intellectual rigor, with moral clarity, to the appreciation of a wide and growing audience.’’

A great deal of Dr. Wilson’s effectiveness in public policy, Kelling and Murray said, can be attributed to his deft touch as a writer.

Murray recalled that Richard J. Herrnstein, his coauthor on “The Bell Curve,’’ once said Dr. Wilson “wrote on yellow legal pads longhand with hardly any corrections at all.’’

“According to Dick, whom I believe, you would read Jim’s crystalline prose and it was essentially a first draft,’’ Murray said. “He definitely had a well-ordered mind on several levels.’’

Born in Denver, Dr. Wilson grew up in Long Beach, Calif., the older of two children. His ambitions were modest when he graduated from high school.

In an interview last year with The Wall Street Journal, he said he was learning to fix carburetors in a repair shop when a high school English teacher suggested he go to the University of Redlands nearby. The teacher had misled Redlands officials, saying that Dr. Wilson had received financial aid to attend Yale University, but that he might stay close by if Redlands offered a scholarship.

After graduating from Redlands, he wanted to teach at the college level and went to the University of Chicago for a master’s and a doctorate.


“I entered a standard-issue liberal and came out a conservative,’’ he told the Journal.

From 1961 to 1987, Dr. Wilson taught at Harvard, where his publications including “Broken Windows’’ established his intellectual reputation.

Near the end of his time at Harvard, he held an unusual joint tenured appointment at Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1987, he left Harvard to teach in California at UCLA and Pepperdine University.

In 2007, he told the Los Angeles Times that “The Moral Sense,’’ published in 1993 while he taught in California, was “the most important book I’ve ever written.’’

“It sums up what I think about human society, about the importance of human character,’’ he said. “It talks about how much of it naturally grows and how resistant it is even to many very harmful external influences.’’

A few years ago, he returned to Boston to become the first senior fellow at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College and a distinguished scholar in BC’s political science department.

He told the Wall Street Journal that he and his wife, Roberta, moved back to New England to be closer to their children and grandchildren, joking that his descendants “feel a legal obligation to live within 30 minutes of Fenway Park.’’

Dr. Wilson married Roberta Evans in 1952. They had been high school sweethearts in Long Beach. “The two of them were so compatible their marriage seemed effortless,’’ said their son, Dr. Matthew Wilson of Wakefield


A service will be announced for Dr. Wilson, who in addition to his wife and son leaves a daughter, Annie Gilbert of Andover; a sister, Diane Gray of Houston; and five grandchildren.

Dr. Wilson grew up in Long Beach “when the freeways were first being built,’’ he told the Los Angeles Times in 2007, and his affection for the open road did not dim, no matter where he lived.

“He loved cars,’’ his son said. “He always seemed to have a fast race car in the garage. He drove very, very well, but he drove a tad rapidly.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at