Though he didn't consider it a "great literary moment in my life," that isn't stopping folks today from remembering James Q. Wilson for his seminal 1982 analysis of urban crime for The Atlantic. Wilson, 80, died of leukemia this morning in Boston, where he was a senior fellow at Boston College. He previously taught at Harvard and UCLA.
Outside of the academy, Wilson was best known for his article "Broken Windows," written with George L. Kelling for the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic, which helped spread the idea that small acts of vandalism in neighborhoods give license for others to commit more serious crimes. This notion grew into "broken windows theory" that has been widely adopted by police forces around the country in the decades since. WIlson and Kelling wrote, "Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police -- and the rest of us -- ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows."
Boston's mayor at the time, Kevin White, told The Boston Globe, “I read it and it hit me," saying that he went on to call for more foot patrols. The best-known implementation of the Wilson's, though, came with Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policy, largely (though some are dubious) credited getting New York out of its high-crime days in the 1990s. But for all its influence, Wilson himself downplayed The Atlantic article. He told The New York Times in 1998:
''I'm glad that it's had some influence,'' Mr. Wilson, interviewed here at his home an hour's drive north of Los Angeles, said of the broken-windows concept. ''It was important that the police pay attention to orderliness as well as to crime. But 'Broken Windows' is the title of one essay I wrote among many. I don't see it as a great literary moment in my life.''
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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