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What James Q. Wilson Did

March 3rd, 2012

James Q. Wilson passed away this week. Never met him. Many folks I know and respect esteemed him.  Here’s what the NYTimes obit had to say:

James Q. Wilson, [was] a wide-ranging social scientist whose “broken windows” theory of law enforcement laid the groundwork for crime reduction programs in New York, Los Angeles and other cities.  Probably his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less tthreatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down. Such a strategy became a cornerstone of the “quality of life” crime-reduction program in the 1990s of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and his first police commissioner, William J. Bratton

Wilson’s “broken windows” work gave “permission” to cops to pay attention to the small stuff. In fact, it demanded it. Want to fight crime? Here’s how, it seemed to say.

But like most theories there were dozens of critical steps  from Wilson’s formulation to results on the street. Implementers like Bill Bratton (full disc: my co-author of COLLABORATE OR PERISH!) already knew it was the small stuff – the crappy behavior on streets — that drove people crazy and killed neighborhoods. Just as important, it was the small stuff in normal behavior that, when it returned, signaled the all-clear for others to take chances. Bratton calls it the “dog walker factor.”

Signaling, it turns out, was everything. Read the rest of this entry »