Rewriting the Rules on How to Fight Crime


He is the man behind a revolution in American policing.

He is one of the country’s most influential political philosophers. His work on morals has suggested a new view of the human conscience and society. He is polite and deferential, modest and intellectually ravenous. Above all, he is sensible, his work grounded in real life even as it plumbs the reaches of genetics, morality, criminality and society.

He is James Q. Wilson, 65, the quiet, gray-haired Long Beach native and UCLA faculty member whose work has helped redefine the role of the police in a free society. Over the past 20 years, Wilson’s ideas about how police should work have gone from novel to commonplace, from controversial to nearly universal.

Once greeted skeptically by law enforcement agencies, Wilson’s theories now are called community policing and have a home in virtually every major metropolitan police department in America. All of those programs owe some debt to “Broken Windows,” a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by Wilson and George L. Kelling.


That article reexamined the role of police, suggesting that maintenance of public order was at least as important as solving crimes, that graffiti, vandalism and neglect gave rise to fear and ultimately to violence. Those ideas now may seem common, but in 1982, they represented a new vision of what police should do, one that confounded common ideological approaches to law enforcement.

In fact, where the idea of police attacking low-level crime and engaging communities in problem-solving now enjoys support among “liberal” law enforcement agencies, it has cross-cutting ideological implications. On one hand, community policing offers a way to improve community-police relations, a longtime goal of liberal police reformers; at the same time, it also draws officers into a host of social problems, a vast extension of police power.

One thing all observers agree on: “Broken Windows” changed the face of American policing.

“Page for page, [it] has had a greater impact than any other article in serious policing,” said Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice, research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. “It makes sense to community members and to the cops.”


William Bratton, former commissioner of the New York Police Department and perhaps the nation’s best-known police administrator, never goes anywhere without a copy of the article in his briefcase. He has doled it out to the command staffs of every police agency he has headed. Even now, he continues to tout its merits. Last month, he was in Milwaukee on a consulting job; while there, he passed a copy of the article to the city’s mayor.

For Wilson, however, the national embrace of community policing is a mixed bag. He sees policing as far better than it was 20 years ago. Officers are better-educated, police strategies far more sophisticated. But as the nation’s premier criminologist hears about the work of police departments across the country, and particularly here at home, he is not always thrilled.

From Stability to Urban Decay

Simple, elegant, crisply written, “Broken Windows” was both a description of urban decay and a remedy for fighting it.

“A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle,” Wilson and Kelling wrote. “A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers. . . .

“Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes’ customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently.”

When “Broken Windows” appeared, American police viewed themselves principally as crime-fighters, not as keepers of public order. They were reactive; their authority generally was limited to responding to emergency calls. They sped into neighborhoods to make arrests. Then they sped out.

“Broken Windows” argued a profoundly different notion: that neighborhood safety is not measurable exclusively in crime rates, that crime in fact can go down and yet residents can feel less safe. Wilson and Kelling’s new approach to policing suggested that cops address not just emergency calls but also urban decay.


“I felt confident that we had managed to get our arms around something important,” said Wilson, who wrote the article’s first draft in about a week. “My instincts for that are pretty good.”

Within days of its appearance, reaction began pouring in. As Kelling remembers it, average readers and community groups embraced the idea, police were perplexed by it and many academics dismissed it as an attempt to rationalize an extension of police power.

“Some colleagues said they understood my position completely and that I was a fascist,” Kelling recalled.

Nevertheless, the idea caught on with tremendous force. Fourteen years later, “Broken Windows” remains one of the most requested articles in the modern history of the Atlantic Monthly.

“To this day, Jim and I remain stunned by the impact the article has had,” said Kelling, who was a researcher for the Police Foundation at a time when Wilson helped lead that organization. Kelling--who recently completed a book entitled “Fixing Broken Windows,” which instructs political leaders on how to cope with crime and disorder--said he was thrilled to share a byline for the original piece, written principally by Wilson.

“If anything,” Kelling added, “its influence has grown.”

Police and academics agree. And they attribute its influence in part to the ideas expressed by the authors and in part to Wilson’s skill as a writer. Like all of Wilson’s work, the article’s language is direct. Its underlying notions eventually captivated academics, but its blunt assessments of how communities fall apart rang true for citizens and cops.

“It was a great idea,” said criminologist James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. “The attitude traditionally was that panhandlers or graffiti wasn’t worth the time. Wilson and Kelling changed that.”


A Focus on Clear Writing

Born and raised in Long Beach, Wilson was the first member of his family to attend college, and then only by happenstance--the first of several that eventually would shape his career. A high school English teacher suggested that he apply, and Wilson just barely beat the deadline, landing a spot at the University of Redlands.

In college, a political science professor impressed him, so he majored in political science. He served in the Korean War and then went to the University of Chicago, where he increasingly devoted his attention to urban politics, including police behavior. Graduate school provided him with another important mentor, a political science professor named Edward C. Banfield.

“Professor Banfield had been a journalist, converted from being a journalist to being a professor,” recalled Wilson. “Not only was he one of the smartest people I have ever known, but he still wrote like a journalist, and he insisted his students learn to write reasonably clearly. . . . There was to be no jargon, no passive voice.”

From the start, Wilson’s writing attracted attention. He was hired by Harvard University in 1961, and from that august post he attracted increasing attention as a leading scholar on policing. After being asked to join one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s crime commissions, Wilson found himself asked questions about crime and criminal behavior, so he began studying those areas, a topic that set him musing not just about why people break the law but why they obey it.

In article after article, book after book, Wilson built a reputation for rigorous research, careful analysis and courage. Some of his research was controversial, especially his work analyzing race and crime.

“Even to allude to the possibility that races may differ in the distribution of those constitutional factors that are associated with criminality will strike some people as factually, ethically or prudentially wrong,” he and Professor Richard J. Herrnstein wrote in “Crime and Human Nature,” published in 1985. “We disagree.”

Still, Wilson and Herrnstein were cautious about directly attributing any criminal behavior to genetics. They stressed that complex social and genetic interaction was at work. “There is no evidence for the existence of a ‘crime gene’ in the same sense that we may know there is a gene that produces red hair,” they wrote.

Despite those qualifiers, Wilson’s theorizing about crime, race and genetics drew him into a volatile area, one where cool academic discourse is sometimes overwhelmed by politics and passion. Wilson knows all that, but he professes surprise at the debate.

“All human behavior is a result of some interaction between biology and environment. Crime is no exception. I’ve always been astonished that people found this assertion controversial. It’s hard to think of a piece of human behavior that does not flow out of some interaction between how we were born and how we are raised.”

After 26 years with Harvard, Wilson was lured in 1986 to UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Although some colleagues believe he is happier in the more conservative environment of UCLA’s business school than amid Harvard’s famously liberal politics, Wilson said he moved not to flee Harvard but rather to come home.

Once Wilson landed at UCLA, it was only a matter of time before local leaders sought out his advice. Although his writing has gradually turned from crime and policing to a more general exploration of human morals, he chipped in when asked, offering thoughts to elected leaders and LAPD brass and helping lead a special commission that examined the organization of the Police Department in the early ‘90s, just as Chief Daryl F. Gates was concluding his stormy LAPD tenure.

Then, in 1992, William Ouchi, a respected UCLA professor and management expert, arranged for Wilson to meet a wealthy businessman who was contemplating a run for mayor of Los Angeles. Richard Riordan had never held elected office, so as he ruminated about running, Ouchi set him up with experts in various fields, people who could offer thoughts on government and challenges facing America.

Some of the meetings captivated Riordan; some did not. Few affected the usually restless lawyer as deeply as his session with Wilson.

“People who know Dick don’t believe this,” Ouchi said, “but for two to three hours, he never once reached for a telephone. He didn’t get up and pace at all.”

Instead, Riordan sat quietly, taking notes, asking questions, absorbing Wilson’s perspectives on crime, policing and urban blight.

Wilson and the mayor-to-be struck up a friendship that lasts to this day. They often confer on issues facing the city, and they seem to complement each other-- Riordan’s restless energy contrasts with Wilson’s deep focus even as they share an abiding curiosity. Riordan recommends Wilson’s writings, especially “Broken Windows,” to visitors, and occasionally quotes him in speeches. Wilson and his wife, Roberta, are members of a book group that meets in Riordan’s Brentwood home.

Riordan, who says he deeply admires Wilson’s honesty, courage and curiosity, refers to him simply as “one of the finest people I have ever known.”

Today, Riordan’s thoughts on law enforcement incorporate many of Wilson’s ideas, in some cases because the mayor has adopted the professor’s perspective, in others because Wilson’s notions have reinforced Riordan’s own thoughts. The mayor echoes Wilson’s belief that the LAPD is understaffed. He hammers on the need for police accountability, another common theme with Wilson.

And Riordan brightens visibly when he holds forth on the idea that police need to improve a city’s quality of life, not just solve its crimes--the central premise of “Broken Windows.”

How Well Does It Work?

“Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is,” Wilson and Kelling wrote. “But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”

That paradox underscores the essence of community policing, which undertakes to protect neighborhoods from decay and thus protect them from crime.

But does it work?

Community-based policing, as practiced across the country, takes on several different emphases. Among them: building community alliances, meeting with neighborhood groups to identify problems and propose solutions, and bearing down on low-level crimes that degrade a community’s quality of life.

San Diego, considered a national leader in the field, stresses problem-solving, as does another acclaimed department, Seattle.

Houston tried sending officers door to door, but its program--officially Neighborhood-Oriented Policing but sarcastically nicknamed Nobody on Patrol--eventually fell apart.

In 1991, a new mayor and a new police chief there rejected that approach in favor of hard-nosed, traditional policing. Crime dropped dramatically; police morale soared.

In fact, while community-based policing enjoys widespread support, there are pockets of dissent. Some worry that it could breed corruption by letting officers grow too close to the communities where they work; others see the idea as new packaging of old concepts. Former chief Gates dismisses it as little more than a code phrase for polite policing.

But others say community policing can take a hard edge--and can register notable successes. New York has attracted national attention for its crackdown on low-level crime, an approach that Wilson and others believe has helped to push crime to its lowest level in a generation in America’s largest city, although it has been accompanied by a huge jump in civilian complaints against police.

In New York, Wilson said, community policing “means getting very tough on low-level crime in order to assert police presence to get drugs off the street and to get, so to speak, rowdy teenagers and squeegie operators moving. You can’t prove whether this worked in New York or not, but I’ve looked at the data and gone there and talked to people, and I’m convinced that it has made a difference.”

Judging whether community policing is responsible for dips in crime is a tricky business. Some criminologists are skeptical that any type of police behavior can much affect crime, which they see as beholden to social forces such as unemployment, poverty, drugs and availability of weapons.

And even if police can affect the overall level of crime in an area, measuring the effectiveness of a particular style of policing is even harder.

How, for instance, will the LAPD know five years from now if its community policing efforts are working?

Should there be fewer reported crimes because fewer are being committed? Or more because citizens feel less reticent about calling the police? Fewer complaints against officers because they are behaving better? Or more because citizens learn to trust the department’s internal affairs authorities? More arrests because officers crack down on low-level crime? Or fewer because they solve problems without resorting to their handcuffs?

According to Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, the LAPD will know whether its efforts have succeeded primarily because it will ask residents and police. Surveys will measure the regard residents have for their police and the satisfaction LAPD employees have with their working conditions: If approval goes up, community policing is working; if it goes down, community policing is failing.

That approach does not much impress Wilson, who warns that surveys have their place but may not be enough to gauge the effectiveness of community policing.

“Routine statistical data don’t do it,” he said.

Instead, Wilson proposed more nuanced approaches that would vary depending on the particular effort being measured. In a neighborhood where community members and police identified street drug dealing as a problem, police might measure their success by sending in an undercover operator to try to buy drugs; as that task got harder, it would demonstrate progress.

Similarly, if the community and police department agreed that a park had become a source of neighborhood blight, then they might propose cleanup efforts, ejection of illegal vendors, arrests of drug dealers or prostitutes. Success in that campaign could be evaluated by hiring residents to stroll the park several times a day and record their observations.

But Wilson would not stop there. Instead, he suggests that other police departments look toward New York for its system of holding supervisors accountable.

“Every precinct commander in the entire city periodically must come and defend [their approach] in front of a big bank of brass and other precinct commanders,” Wilson said. “And in that environment you can’t lie because everybody knows what’s really going on. . . . The New York City accountability model is one worth trying.”

Concern for LAPD

Wilson’s enthusiasm for the New York model is in contrast to his concern for today’s LAPD.

“The L.A. Police Department is having a bad time right now,” he said. “The command staff is divided. Many of them are unhappy. The leadership doesn’t seem to an outsider to be very strong.”

Take the issue of arrests. Wilson said he has puzzled over why LAPD arrests are down in recent years. He has not studied the data in detail, but he noted that the drop is accompanied by declines in field interviews and other signs of officer productivity.

Examining those same statistics, the LAPD recently suggested that the decreases were the natural consequence of a move toward community policing. “Overall,” a draft LAPD analysis concluded, “it must be emphasized that the focus of the Los Angeles Police Department has significantly changed from an aggressive, proactive, quasi-military style of policing to a more directed focus on community policing, problem-solving and education.”

Again, the LAPD’s explanation falls short for Wilson. In theory, he agreed, community policing might in fact drive down arrests. Problems might be solved by early intervention or community action, and therefore would not escalate to the point that an arrest was necessary. The only trouble with that analysis, he said, is that it assumes the LAPD has adopted community policing.

“The question is of course: Are they in that environment?” Wilson said. “I get the sense that no, they are not.”

As for progress?

“Though everybody will talk about community-oriented policing and all these other things, you don’t find a lot happening.”

To get there, Wilson said, the prerequisite is strong leadership, leadership willing first to consolidate power, then to force it back out into the field, leadership determined to make captains and other officers take responsibility for a program that some will not like. That, he added, takes time and determination. It involves nothing less than the transformation of a culture.

And yet, neither Wilson’s lukewarm impression of today’s LAPD nor his recognition of the challenge in adopting community policing cause him dismay.

“It’s a tough process,” he said. “But I believe it can be done.”


Profile: James Q. Wilson

* Age: 65

* Education: University of Redlands; PhD from University of Chicago

* Career highlights: 1961-86, Henry Lee Shattuck professor of government, Harvard University; 1987-present, James A. Collins chair in management, professor of strategy and organization, UCLA; author or co-author of more than a dozen books. Among the most influential books: “Thinking About Crime,” “Crime and Human Nature” and “The Moral Sense.” The most unorthodox: “Watching Fishes--Life and Behavior on Coral Reefs” (with his wife, Roberta Wilson).

* Interests: Scuba diving

* Family: Married; two children, three grandchildren.

* Quote: “The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization--namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.”

--From “Broken Windows,” by Wilson and George L. Kelling, Atlantic Monthly, March 1992



The Los Angeles Police Department, under then-Chief Edward M. Davis, pioneered a precursor of community-based policing in the 1970s, when Davis invented the “basic car plan” and “team policing,” two programs intended to bring police closer to the community. Those programs gradually fell into disrepair in later years, victims of budget cuts and lack of top support. In 1991, the Christopher Commission studied the LAPD and concluded that it should, among other things, “adopt the community-based policing model and implement it fully, albeit carefully, throughout the department.” Police Chief Willie L. Williams, hired in the wake of that report, has enthusiastically supported community policing but cautioned that it will take seven to 10 years to implement fully. Williams recently estimated that the LAPD was “probably 30% to 40% of the way [toward achieving community policing], which isn’t bad.”


On the Internet

The landmark article “Broken Windows,” written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, is available via the Internet: