Man of Reason
James Q. Wilson’s thinking about crime and policing saved lives and transformed cities for the better.
In 1966, a prestigious commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson issued a lengthy report on how the nation should respond to the growing crime wave that was already turning parts of American cities into war zones. What was needed, declared the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, was a massive government effort to eliminate the alleged root causes of crime: poverty and racism. The report relegated policing to a mere after-the-fact response to urban lawlessness; wealth redistribution and social programs would do the real crime-fighting. Unfortunately, the commission established the dominant paradigm for thinking about crime and policing for the next 30 years. Not surprisingly, lawlessness would continue to rise, wreaking havoc on once vibrant cities.
It needn’t have turned out that way. Just a few months after the commission had released its tomes, James Q. Wilson, who died last week at 80, published an article in the Public Interest pointing out some previously unnoticed oddities in this blueprint for crime-fighting. Out of 200 recommendations that the commission made, only six actually addressed public safety, Wilson—then in his sixth year teaching political science at Harvard—observed.
Wilson noted the lack of empirical support for the commission’s agenda: the advisors recommended, for example, that government fund more social services as an antidote to crime, even though no research showed that those social programs had any effect on behavior. The presidential report called for decreasing prison sentences and for diverting criminals to probation, even though nothing demonstrated that alternatives to incarceration better protected the public than incapacitating offenders in prison.
Had Professor Wilson’s message that crime should be fought directly through the police and other criminal justice agencies been acted upon at the time, America’s urban future for the next quarter century would have been quite different and New York wouldn’t have had to wait for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton to demonstrate in the 1990s the extraordinary power of policing to lower crime.
Wilson’s Public Interest article set the pattern for his intellectual career. Over the next 45 years, Wilson would continue patiently to point out when the emperor had no clothes, to exercise skepticism toward conventional wisdom, and to derive his ground-breaking insights from a close attention to the facts on the ground.
In the 1970s, Wilson was one of lone-wolf researchers who studied actual police behavior—above all looking at the all-important problem of how police do and should use their discretion. His 1975 book, Thinking About Crime, rated by criminologists as one of the two most influential books to come out of their profession, argued that criminals make a rational choice to commit crime, based on an assessment of its risks and rewards. Government could lower crime by changing that calculation, above all by increasing the chance that a perpetrator would be caught and punished. The swiftness and certainty of punishment were more important than its severity, Wilson asserted.
The article that would revolutionize how we think about public order appeared in 1982: the famous “broken windows” essay in the Atlantic magazine, coauthored with Manhattan Institute fellow George Kelling. In 1994 Mayor Giuliani and then-commissioner Bratton made “Broken Windows” a template for the New York policing revolution. The police would no longer ignore allegedly “minor” infractions of the law, such as graffiti, public drinking, and illegal vending, but would intervene to restore a sense of order in troubled neighborhoods. In so doing, they would only be responding to the previously unacknowledged demand in poor communities for the same sense of lawfulness enjoyed in wealthy areas. Left-wing academics and journalists continue to dismiss that desire with their specious claim that broken-windows policing is an unjust assault on the poor. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, for one, knows better. So seriously does he take the department’s role in order maintenance that he sends photographers throughout the city to take pictures of illegal street conditions; Kelly then emails those photos to precinct commanders to shame them into action.
Wilson and Kelling’s insights, along with the data-driven accountability system known as Compstat, have driven New York crime down nearly 80 percent since the early 1990s, transforming the city and releasing millions of residents from the bondage of violence. Today, there is not a police department in the county that does not apply broken-windows theory to reduce crime and—as importantly—to reduce the public’s fear of crime.
Wilson’s insights into society, law, and bureaucracy, captured in well over a dozen books, earned him a truckload of glittering prizes, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and catapulted him onto numerous national fact-finding panels. His last article for City Journal, to which he contributed regularly, asked the question that his academic colleagues would still rather overlook: Why has crime gone down in the recession? The nearly universal indifference among criminologists to the post-recession crime drop reflects the enduring grip on the academic mind of the “root causes” theory of crime, which would predict that crime should shoot up during periods of economic difficulty. Fortunately, police professionals have cast their lot with Wilson. New York and the nation’s ongoing crime drop, through good economic times and bad, can be credited in no small part to James Q. Wilson’s empirically tested wisdom about human behavior and the rule of law.
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