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What James Q. Wilson Did


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.Is this place safe? Am I dead if I sit on the stoop? Everyone takes different cues. But everyone knows what cops mean. Cops ignoring stuff means it does not count. Cops collaring street level drug dealers meant they were for real.

If, they could stick around. If, there were real sanctions on the back end, so their threats could be credible without cops throwing everyone in the clink for breathing the wrong way.

What was important was that leaders like Bratton now had theory to back up what they already knew. They couldn’t do it alone: they had to bring the dog-walkers back and restore a critical mass of people acting civilly in public.

And of course Bratton, with Mayor’s Dinkins’s help, now had 40,000 cops. If you couldn’t pay attention to prostitution and domestic violence and guns with 40,000 cops, you didn’t deserve to lead – not the squad, the precinct, the patrol boro command, or the NYPD. That was how Bratton saw it.

Theory was important for two reasons. First, cops had ignored low-level crime by design for years as nothing but trouble. Commanders told the rank and file to forget it – it was corruption-prone and would lead to no good. And it wasn’t exactly a priority on the FBI Uniformed Crime Reports –  which is what mayors, editors and pols paid attention to.

Broken windows gave police leaders like Bratton reason to put quality life crimes on the CompStat menu and make them a priority for cops no matter what the FBI said. This was the new crime fighting, guys.

Bratton, Jack Maple and the team had a lot of persuading to do: top commanders at NYPD were old school “crime fighters” – well, at least they thought so. This was small stuff.  Back then NYPD tough guys would tell you, “We’re the best. And this is as good as it gets.” And, by the way – we don’t do windows.

By the time CompStat policing had turned NYPD around, most of the command staff Bratton found when he came on to the NYPD 18 months earlier was history. Some top commanders did stick around – John Timoney, Louis Anemone. They signaled “old school” was buying in and on-board. For Bratton, that was critical to bringing the department along. But he would have done it anyway.

Second –  broken windows theory was important because historically there had been no real payoff  to broken windows-type violations and crime. There was never a real sanction at the back end. From desk sergeants to DAs to courts to corrections – this was chickensh*t, “victimless” stuff that jammed mal-doers into the system, created more work, but with no place to put anyone, saw ‘em cut loose in three minutes.

The key to success was Bratton and Giuliani forcing the rest of the system to tighten the escape hatches and hold the pressure – both internally at NYPD (that was Bratton, with leadership and vision, rewards and punishments) and externally across judges, corrections officers, probation, and DA’s (that was Giuliani).

Between them, Bratton and Giuliani forced the system to realign its assets in the name of something everyone could believe in – a safer city.

Backed up by theory and then tenacious internal management and external politics, NYPD produced results no one could have expected, but which Wilson had predicted. Armed with broken windows theory, Bratton made the business case. But it took leadership, a pitiless view of the reality of NYPD performance, and a deep belief in cops to turn Wilson’s theory into reality. With it, Bratton rebooted the NYPD and policing in New York and, with Giuliani, created the safest city in the world.



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2 responses to “What James Q. Wilson Did”

  1. Jim Creamer says:

    The dark side of the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement is the overreach of police profiling and the failed “war on drugs” campaign. America has more people in prison than the rest of the world combined. There are far too many innocent people in jail and the “Innocence Project” has freed to date 143 people from death row.

    The Chicago Boys’ “Shock Doctrine” has destabilized the world and America’s militarized police will be tested in coping with America’s crony capitalism’s victims.

  2. Ugur says:

    Very good article. Thanks for share