James Q. Wilson Dead at 80: The Enduring Legacy of Broken Windows Theory

Posted on March 3, 2012 by


Image: Amazon

In 1982 James Q. Wilson and George Kelling co-authored a piece for The Atlantic in which they laid the foundation for a new theory of crime. In essence, they argued that fixing broken windows is of critical importance. They wrote, “Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding.”

A broken window is a signal to the community. It is, in itself, criminogenic. This very simple concept led to many practical reform ideas for the field, and soon many police departments were finding ways to put ideas into action.

In my own time in law enforcement, we very actively pursued graffiti. Though we didn’t use the broken windows terminology, it was this idea that directly influenced the community response to this common problem. Any time we received a report of graffiti, we took a picture, then immediately advised the victim to clean it up, replace the surface, whatever it took to get rid of that graffiti ASAP. The downtown business district even maintained a fund for business owners to have the offending tags removed free of charge because they recognized the importance of fixing this “broken window” for the good of all.

This had the effect of pushing crime elsewhere – taggers seemed to quickly learn that downtown businesses were the fastest at getting rid of grafitti – but also of keeping it a minimal problem in a mid-sized community. After all, taggers tag because they want their message to be seen. If it doesn’t stay up long enough to be seen by other taggers or gangs, it’s not worth the spray paint. I also surmise that it had an invisible effect as well. As Wilson and Kelling would argue, it sent a message to the community as a whole. These properties are tended. This is not a place to commit crime, destroy property, or vandalize. This community cares about how it looks.

Wilson and Kelling’s article proved to be hugely influential, and, much later, the arguments were more fully developed by Kelling and Cole in their 1996 book. The theory has not been without controversy, but Wilson’s contribution to criminology and criminal justice is undeniable. Wilson reportedly died on March 2nd, following treatment for leukemia.