James Q. Wilson, who developed Broken Windows Theory, Dies at 80.

By: Sophie Aiyer, PhD, MHS, MI-YVPC Postdoctoral Fellow

James Q. Wilson, the social scientist who created the well-known “broken windows theory” (Kelling & Coles, 1996; Kelling & Wilson, 1982), died on Friday, March 2nd in Boston, Massachusetts at 80- years of age. James Q. Wilson’s scientific contributions influenced many crime reduction and prevention programs in major cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. The application of broken windows theory to issues surrounding crime prevention was arguably Wilson’s most prominent legacy.

Early in his career, Wilson took a unique approach to understanding crime. Traditionally, policy makers focused on the role of economic incentives in order to solve public health issues. Instead, Wilson was interested in the role of social disintegration in understanding crime, regarding social ties in both family and neighborhood contexts.  Overall, Wilson’s many works emphasized the utility of moral character, commonly discussing the importance of being dependable and responsible. It was his focus on social disorder, instability, and social isolation which influenced many of his theories, including the broken windows theory.

James Wilson and George Kelling initially developed published the Broken Windows Theory in 1982. Instead of viewing crime as the outcome of individual characteristics and choices, they discussed crime in the context of the broader neighborhood context.  Specifically, they proposed that neighborhood social and physical disorganization were most important to consider. Wilson and Kelling explained that minor forms of public disorder eventually lead to urban decay and more serious crime. These physical signs of disorder were thought to be visual reminders or neighborhood deterioration that eventually would result in institutional disinvestment, decreased interest in a community, migration, and resident avoiding social interaction (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999; Perkins & Taylor, 1996; Xu et al., 2005).

Thus, Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows theory has significantly influenced how we approach crime over the last two decades. Broken windows has influenced crime prevention programs and the emergence of policing that focuses on minor offenses and disorder to disrupt the trajectory to more serious, violent crime. This community policing approach emphasizes the role of police in improving the capacity of communities to exert informal social control (Sousa & Kelling, 2006). Community policing efforts aim to forge partnerships between police and residents in distressed neighborhoods in an effort to prevent crime and promote early detection of minor offenses.

Here, at the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center (MI- YVPC), we are currently implementing a comprehensive, multi-level youth violence prevention strategy which incorporates many fundamental aspects of James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory. We are targeting social and institutional relationships in order to reduce crime and improve public safety. Our Community Policing initiative is largely grounded in Wilson’s work, aiming to promote problem solving and facilitate cooperation between police officers and community residents. In addition, our Clean and Green program aims to engage neighborhood organizations to reclaim and improve vacant projects. Community beautification projects such as ours demonstrate the practical application of broken windows theory to neighborhood improvement efforts. Finally, our Mentoring initiative creates social contexts for natural mentoring relationships between adults and youth to develop, emphasizing the importance of social connections and social bonds.

James Q. Wilson made crucial contributions to the social science literature, while also developing theories which have shaped crime prevention programs and policies. Wilson and Kelling laid the essential groundwork for allowing us to understand the effects of social processes in order to delineate how neighborhoods influence crime and public safety. At MI-YVPC, we extend Wilson’s broken windows theory by focusing on positive neighborhood processes and characteristics, rather than focusing on deficits, problems, and negative neighborhood factors.