George Kelling, whose ‘broken windows’ theory revolutionized urban policing, dies at 83

George Kelling at his home in Hanover, New Hampshire in 2015r
George Kelling at his home in Hanover, New Hampshire in 2015r
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

George L. Kelling, a criminologist whose “broken windows” theory revolutionized urban policing and helped make sprawling cities like Los Angeles safer but stoked criticism that it also invited police abuse, had died at his home in New Hampshire. He was 83.

Kelling, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died Wednesday, his wife, Catherine M. Coles, announced on Facebook.

A former social worker, Kelling had a long career spanning highs and lows. His famous 1982 Atlantic magazine article “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” co-written with James Q. Wilson, had wide-ranging influence.


Not many criminologists are credited with immediate social change. But Kelling was celebrated for having helped tame urban crime and blight and his ideas were embraced from Newark, N.J., to Boyle Heights.

William S. Bratton, former LAPD chief and two-time New York City police commissioner, was among his admirers and employed his concepts when he tried to restore order in Los Angeles, a city that had been left battered by rioting, the Rodney King beating and the racial tensions whipped up by the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

The broken windows theory drew criticism, however. Detractors charged that the concept had -- in Kelling’s own words -- put the poor, the homelesss and the downtrodden at risk of being abused by police.

By the early 2000s, the atmosphere had changed so much that Walter Skogan, one of Kelling’s like-minded colleagues, jokingly told him: “When the criminological war crimes trials begin, you and I are going to be the first two at the docket.”

Kelling demurred: Wilson, who helped conceive the broken windows theory, would be first, he said.

Broken windows posited that disorderly conditions in neighborhoods signaled that no one cared, and led to more serious crimes. One broken window brought others, and worse.

It was invoked in the 1990s to justify more aggressive enforcement of minor crimes. The NYPD’s crackdown on “squeegee men” in New York City — panhandlers who would scamper through traffic to clean windshields and then demand payment -- was a classic example.

But as minor-crimes enforcement gained enthusiastic adherents among police and politicians, civil libertarians objected. They said the theory justified harassment of poor minority men, cost too much and had little grounding in research. Broken windows had tended to “create an enemy class in the minds of many officers,” a former San Jose police chief said.

Kelling was increasingly on the defensive. Both “the far right and the far left” had misinterpreted broken windows, which was supposed to be leavened by a dose of negotiation and social work, he said.

If Kelling’s ideas proved divisive, his personal style was anything but. In writings and speeches, he stressed the complexity of social issues. He insisted on nuance. He ceded points to critics.

At times he seemed to argue against his own success. “A metaphor may take on a life of its own,” he warned in a 1997 speech.

George L. Kelling was born in Milwaukee on Aug. 21, 1935, and graduated from that city’s Washington High School in 1952. It was not a better world, he said: Jim Crow was still in force. But in “one respect it was better: I was raised in a world in which neither my parents nor I worried a whole lot about my safety.”

He wanted to be a clergyman. But then he had a traumatic change of heart. He left Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary in Minneapolis for Minnesota’s St. Olaf College to study philosophy. At St. Olaf, he realized that, though no longer a seminarian, he could still “contribute to the public welfare.”

He got a job in the Hennepin County, Minn., detention center as a child-care supervisor in college then became a probation officer.

Kelling said he watched with dismay as well-meaning social projects – public transit, freeway building, the razing of neighborhoods for public housing – fueled blight and disorder. He grew “indignant” at the lack of basic safety suffered by people left to flounder in their wake, he said.

A scene from the 1992 riots, with Los Angeles at a low point after the police beating of Rodney King the previous year and the acquittal of four officers accused in his beating.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

His background in social work had shown him the real lives of the poor. He would remain forever skeptical of elites who claimed to speak for them. His theorizing had a practical bent.

A book deeply influenced him. It wasn’t a criminology text; it was Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

He got a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1962 and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His social work career included administering a psychiatric care program for youth in Minnesota. In 1972, he studied police patrol practices in Kansas City, Mo., and elsewhere. The work led him to question the value of conventional police tactics, such as driving through neighborhoods.

He was grateful to Wilson. But he also highlighted differences between himself and the controversial UCLA political scientist, who died in 2012. The phrase “broken windows” was Wilson’s idea, he said.

He wrote a book with his wife, social anthropologist Catherine M. Coles, and worked as a consultant in New York, Boston, Milwaukee and Detroit. He was a professor at Northeastern University and at Rutgers University-Newark and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Misuse of ideas was a theme he returned to often. Asked to offer lessons to new graduates in 2005, he summed up: “Good intentions do not result in good policies.”

In addition to his wife, Kelling is survived by a daughter, Kristin Lee Kelling Hayden; son George; and four grandchildren.

Leovy is a former Times staff writer

Staff writer Steve Marble contributed to this report