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

Sophie Aiyer Blog Posts, Media/News 21 Comments

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.

Comments 21

  1. James Q. Wilson made an extreme impact on criminology with the broken window theory. He created solutions in cities to prevent crimes to get worst. For example, in my crime and delinquency class we learned about when a neighborhood has a broken window crime will increase because of the look of the window it has created in a place. I understand crime will have but if we can prevent anything further we can just fix or replace the broken window. Because of his theory, cities and neighborhoods are safe to prevent any other serious crime to happen.

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      Hi David, you make an important point which underscores the application of the broken windows theory to crime prevention. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I first learned about James Q. Wilson in my criminology 300 class. The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the norm setting and signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaing urban environments in a wellordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into a more serious crime. The way that i understood it when we went over it in class was that in an anonymous, urban environment, with few or no other people around, social norms and monitoring are not clearly known. Individuals thus look for signals within the environment as to the social norms in the setting and the risk of getting caught violating those norms; one of those signals is the area’s general appearance. this was how I have come to learn about the broken windows theory and James Q. Wilson. James Q. Wilson has made an important point and has played an important role in the field of criminal justice and I believe that he will never be forgotten.

  3. It was unfortunate to read this and learn of James Q. Wilson’s passing. I have learned so much about him and his theories over the last few years through my Criminal Justice courses. In fact, one of my classes right now is using a book he wrote as the text book. He was able to really get to the root of how and why crime occurs. Because of his broken windows theory, criminal justice procedure has been forever changed. Wilson’s identification that urban decay, disorganization, and lack of social control are a major cause of crime has opened doors for new prevention strategies that have proved effective. I hope that others continue on in his path and keep his methods going. He was a great man for the Criminal Justice field and will not be forgotten.

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      Hi Taylor S., thanks for your comment. We were also saddened to hear of Wilson’s passing. Indeed, his work changed how we approach neighborhood-level research and has significantly influenced how we design crime prevention strategies.

  4. Someone’s death is always unfortunate, especially when they have contributed so much to numerous communities. I first learned about Mr. James Q. Wilson as a sophomore in my CJ 300 class, and his theory was the easiest one for me to remember; and I don’t think that I was alone, because in many of my other CJ classes whenever a professor asked to give an example of a criminal theory Wilson’s Broken Windows Theory was the first one out of anyone’s mouth. I think that Wilson’s concepts have inspired many researchers to look beyond their comfort zones and to try to find all possible sources to criminal activity. Wilson has been a remarkable contributor to the criminal justice field and though he has passed he will be remembered through his theories and contributions to the entire nation.

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      Hi Limary, I had a similar experience when I first learned about Broken Windows. The intuitive nature of Wilson’s theory might be what makes it especially salient. Thanks for your comment.

  5. It is a shame to learn that James Q. Wilson recently passed away. His broken windows theory is one which has forever changed the social sciences. His ideas created one of the most well known theories in the criminal justice practice today. Along with this, he also had a profound effect on how many police agencies operate. Almost all of the classes I have taken for criminology through my college career have at some point discussed Wilson’s broken windows theory. One of the classes I took actually required me to write a paper which utilized this theory and how it impacted a crime “hot-spot” in the city which I currently reside in. When I applied his theory to the crime problem, it was rather simple to demonstrate why the crime was high at this location. Upon finishing that paper, I became an avid supporter of his theory due to seeing how practical it was when applying it to the real world.

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      Hi Azamora, it’s true that theories with real-world application seem to make the biggest impact. Thanks for sharing your experience of applying Broken Windows to analyzing local patterns of crime; it’s always interesting to hear stories like yours.

  6. When I read this post, I was surprised and astonished knowing that such a great mind and contributor of our criminal justice system is now gone. I learned so much from James Q. Wilson. His well-known “Broken windows theory” taught me to think at macro level perspective. We often judge someone’s action without analyzing the external factors that might have contributed to it. Before the “Broken Theory” became famous, many theorists believed that it was someone’s free will the one that made them become involved in criminal activities. I think that Wilson made one of the highest contributions to our criminal justice system. I am very thrilled knowing that the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention center is utilizing the same ideologies that Wilson presented. However, many other cities do not have enough money in their budget so it becomes hard to implement programs that could focus on external factors.

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      Hi Roxana, I agree that there are many reasons that cities aren’t implementing crime-prevention policies focused on changing structural factors; money is certainly one of them. There is also an enormous gap between science and policy which needs to be better bridged. Unfortunately, it seems that the communities lacking resources to fund such prevention strategies are those that need them the most. Thanks so much for following, and also for your post.

  7. James Q. Wilson influenced new theories on crime prevention that truly made a difference in the field of criminal justice. His works truly astonish me when I read them. His crime reduction strategies also brought a new perspective to crime, looking at neighborhood disorganization and how it contributes to social disorder and crime. His “Broken Windows Theory” later brought attention to cleaning up neighborhoods and paying attention to the small crime that could potentially lead to bigger crimes in the communities. His new type of community policing helped police and other policymakers get a better understanding of crime prevention and helping keep society crime free. His passing is unfortunate, but he would always be remembered as one of the best social scholars in the 20th century.

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  8. It is unfortunate that James Q. Wilson, a social scientist who helped launch a revolution in law enforcement as the co-inventor of the “broken windows” theory has passed away. This theory stated that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in good condition may stop minor forms of public disorder and the escalation of more serious crime. This way, a clean environment and neighborhood will send the message to the people that behavior is being monitored and any wrongdoing will not be tolerated. He inspired one of the greatest police chiefs in William Bratton who was the form head of the New York Transit Police, Boston, New York and Los Angeles Police Department and implemented “broken windows” and saw great success and good results. This theory has influenced crime prevention programs and will continue to influence young minds and policy makers.

  9. James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory helped to prevent crime in many communities as they began to make improvements in social integration of neighborhoods. It is important for communities to remain healthy through investments in institutions such as schools, parks, and businesses. This investment in the community will help to prevent migration of residents to other communities. It will also help to encourage residents to seek involvement in a community in which they take pride. I associate broken windows theory with public order crime also referred to as victimless crime because the criminal is usually the only victim. This idea of public order crime as victimless is not necessarily true because public order crime establishes an environment that gives rise to more serious property and violent crime. The most common forms of public order crime are public drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, and illegal drug use. It is James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory that shifted a focus on minor crimes and disruptions that lead to serious crime and for this the CJ community thanks you James Q. Wilson.

  10. The world of social science definitely has suffered a great loss. I remember first learning about Wilson’s “Broken Windows” theory in my Crime and Delinquency class. I remember it left an impact on me due to how profound the idea was. Instead of the traditional societal view of “the neighborhood looks terrible because so much crime is being committed in it,” “Broken Windows” theory highlighted the reciprocal effect that”crime is being committed because the neighborhood looks terrible.” I had never looked at a cause of crime that way. And, living in a suburb of Los Angeles, it is evident all around me. The further away from the inner-city, the nicer the neighborhood and the lower the crime rate, such as in Yorba Linda, CA. But when you head into Watts, the neighborhood is poverty-stricken and the crime rate is substantially higher. With communities that fall victims of the “Broken Windows” theory, it is essential that the root of the problem, in this case the neighborhood, is targeted to be the course of change in crime rate. Community policing is such a great idea. With the terrible neighborhood already feeling like they cannot trust that anyone cares for their community, community policing can bring a cohesiveness to the community by making residents feel like they could trust the police and that people really do care for their community. As the community begins to improve, if this community is in fact an example of the broken windows theory, then crime rate will hopefully begin to drop. James Q. Wilson definitely provided a solid basis for prevention in the social science world, and he will greatly be missed.

  11. James Q. Wilson’s theory on Broken Windows continues to be used today and will continue to influence criminal justice studies in the future. Just recently I passed by a neighborhood that clearly illustrates the Broken Theory. Houses, apartments, businesses, government property, unused cars, all with graffiti, they look deteriorated, and run down. What do criminals and juveniles do? They continue to damage their own neighborhood with even more tagging. As the Broken theory explains, a neighborhood that looks like is being uncared for, will continue to welcome crime and violence to that specific location. James Q. Wilson wrote a persistent theory that will hopefully bring more communities aware of why their community is failing.

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