James Q. Wilson co-authored an essay applying the “Broken Windows” theory to law enforcement in 1982, suggesting that crack downs on petty crime create the sense of a more orderly society and deter more serious crime. It’s a theory credited with the stunning turnaround of New York City’s high crime rates in the nineties, and has become a foundation for law enforcement strategy in police departments across the country. James Q. Wilson passed away last week; we speak with his co-author about the enduring ideas in that influential essay.


  • George Kelling Senior Fellow, The Manhattan Institute; retired professor, Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice


  • 12:44:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe co-author of what is probably the best-known theory on policing, James Q. Wilson, died last Friday. Broken windows, as it's known, was originally explored in psychology experiments in the 1960s. The experiment showed that a neglected or abandoned car was much more likely to be vandalized than a car that appeared cared for. In 1982, James Wilson and George Kelling applied that theory to neighborhoods and policing.

  • 12:44:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn probably the most famous example of the theory in practice, New York City cracked down on petty crime and graffiti in the subways in the '90s, and serious crime dropped to historic lows. Nearly 30 years later, broken windows is still the foundation of law enforcement strategy in most police departments, including right here in the District where the police chief is among the proponents. And it's become shorthand for the idea that attending to small problems can prevent bigger issues from taking root.

  • 12:45:17

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to remember James Wilson is the co-author of that influential essay, George Kelling. He is a retired professor of criminology and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute. He joins us by telephone. George Kelling, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:45:32

    MR. GEORGE KELLINGYou're welcome. It's a pleasure to be talking with you.

  • 12:45:35

    NNAMDIThe broken windows theory was originally a psychology experiment which you and James Wilson then applied to law enforcement. Can you remind us what the original broken windows experiments were?

  • 12:45:46

    KELLINGWell, the one that you described, the research about abandoned cars and damage to those cars. My contribution to the broken windows piece came from research on foot patrol that I did in Newark, N.J. And two findings were especially important. The first was that fear of crime was -- among citizens, was more closely linked to minor offenses than it was to serious offenses. And the second finding was that the order -- maintenance activities of police reduced fear of crime.

  • 12:46:28

    KELLINGJim Wilson had had extensive -- had done extensive research, especially in his book "Varieties of Police Behavior" where he described the watchmen style of policing which focused on disorderly behavior. So it was a combination, really, of Jim's earlier research in four cities, my research in Newark, N.J. and then the insight that you had mentioned earlier.

  • 12:46:54

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, are you familiar with the broken windows theory? Do you see it as relevant in your city or in your neighborhood or anywhere else? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send email to kojo@wamu.org, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. In the original essay, you explored how a neighborhood can feel safer when crime has not, in fact, gone down. How is that possible?

  • 12:47:26

    KELLINGWell, it turns out that, as I mentioned earlier, fear of crime is most closely related to minor offenses than it is to major crimes, such as robbery and burglary. If, right now, you would go to the toughest area in Washington, D.C., and that's where, I think, you're originating from, and talk to citizens at a community meeting and ask them what the five most serious problems are, most likely, four of those five will be graffiti or drunken youths or drug dealing or aggressive panhandling.

  • 12:48:03

    KELLINGThose are the kinds of things that are signs of crime to people. And when they're not taken care of, people begin to be fearful and withdraw from public spaces or take some kind of action to protect themselves. So dealing with disorderly behavior reduces fear and, we argued, also leads to reductions in serious crime as well.

  • 12:48:28

    NNAMDIYou ultimately helped to apply those theories in New York City, specifically in the subway system. Tell us about that.

  • 12:48:35

    KELLINGWell, I was asked by the chairman of the board, Robert Kiley, to do something about what everyone called the homeless problem in the subway. But if you went into the subway and looked at what was going on, that wasn't homelessness. It was lawlessness. People were holding up -- holding open the turnstiles, sucking money out of the coin receptacles, confronting people, demanding money, putting cups under their noses insisting that people give them money.

  • 12:49:06

    KELLINGAnd so the consequence -- I helped the transit police there develop a program to deal with disorderly behavior because, basically, they had been ignoring disorderly behavior. I couldn't get very far because the leadership of the police department didn't support those activities, and there was no sense to me, as an outsider, trying to implement a program unless there was top management support.

  • 12:49:35

    KELLINGConsequently, Robert Kiley hired Bill Bratton to head the transit police in 1990. And, within a matter of months, order was restored, and passenger usage increased. Serious crime dropped, and we know what happened in the subway in New York City since.

  • 12:49:56

    NNAMDIWe're talking with George Kelling. He's a retired professor of criminology and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute. We're talking with him in the wake of the death of James Q. Wilson, with whom George Kelling co-authored the broken windows theory that is applied today in police departments around the country. We're taking your questions or comments at 800-433-8850. Any questions or comments you have about the broken windows theory, 800-433-8850.

  • 12:50:23

    NNAMDIGeorge Kelling, the theory lives on today in police departments around the country, including here in the District of Columbia, where our police chief says she is a proponent of the basic idea. You and your wife Catherine Coles have updated the essay in a book titled "Fixing Broken Windows." How do you think the practice of this strategy has evolved over the 30 years since the essay was published?

  • 12:50:49

    KELLINGWell, I think people have learned, first of all, that it is not zero tolerance. Early, I think people got confused and thought that we were talking about cracking down by high levels of arrest, by very aggressive police action. As a matter of fact, we were talking about a highly discretionary activity. And I think the thing that has -- that police departments were awakened to, and that was that police, when enforcing minor laws against minor offenses, use a lot of discretion. The judgment is whether to educate somebody or warn somebody or arrest somebody.

  • 12:51:40

    KELLINGThose are all matters of discretion for which the police need an enormous amount of support and guidance, and they need training. Back in the mid-'80s, when I'd hear a police chief say, I just heard about broken windows and tomorrow I'm starting, I would -- it would scare me because I thought that the potentials of abuse are very great when you're enforcing the laws against minor offenses.

  • 12:52:07

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Linda in Fairfax County, Va. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:14

    LINDAHi. Well, Mr. Kelling's remarks were very relevant just then. I would just like to comment that one has to be very careful in applying the broken windows theory because what is defined as disorderly or threatening may in -- you know, is not that clear. And in my own work in Latin America and open-air markets, many of the women who work there are considered, you know, disorderly or threatening partly because of racial concerns.

  • 12:52:46

    LINDABut -- and, in fact, they know much more about the culture of the street and do a lot to maintain order on the street. And yet they're periodically thrown off the street because they are a symbol of broken windows because they're not orderly and organized. So I think his remarks about being very careful, about how this theory can be abused is important.

  • 12:53:11

    NNAMDIGeorge Kelling, care to comment?

  • 12:53:12

    KELLINGWell, I would just comment that I think the caller makes an important point, and that is I have consulted throughout Central and South America as this idea has gotten promulgated internationally. And one has to be very careful to be plugged into the culture to make sure that one is not imposing external values on people that are inappropriate. Within the United States, that's a problem as well.

  • 12:53:42

    KELLINGBut at the same time, if one checks across social classes and across races, one finds that there's a broad agreement about what constitutes disorderly behavior, conditions and agreement. And this was Wes Skogan's finding in the Chicago area and other research he's doing.

  • 12:54:01

    KELLINGBut I think one always approached -- approaches this with caution, especially since these minor laws were used after the Civil War to arrest African-Americans and put them into a semi-slavery position throughout the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century. So, again, one has to do this very carefully, working with the community to establish standards and train police appropriately.

  • 12:54:28

    NNAMDILinda, thank you very much for your call. Pursuing that line of argument for a second, George Kelling, some say that too much credit is given to broken windows and that there were many factors in the drop in crime in New York City, for example. Isn't it always more complicated than a single policy?

  • 12:54:43

    KELLINGOh, absolutely. I think it's one story in the subway. I think the -- in the subway, the primary problem was disorderly behavior and conditions. And the focus there, the predominant focus, was broken windows approach. I think in the city of New York itself, which is a much more complex environment, there it was a variety of police tactics and strategies that targeted particular problems in particular areas.

  • 12:55:13

    KELLINGI think broken windows was an underlying philosophy and an underlying set of practices, but there were specific problems about -- there were specific problems to deal with auto theft, to deal with burglary, to deal with homicide. And I think it's very easy to claim too much credit for broken windows. Bill Bratton and his successors were strong believers in it, but at the same time, they realized that the complex set of problems called for a complex set of responses as well. And that's what CompStat was all about.

  • 12:55:49

    NNAMDIHere is Linda in Fredericksburg, Va. Linda, your turn.

  • 12:55:53

    LINDAThank you. I had the opportunity to live in New York on -- for extended period of time. In the '60s, I went to a nursing school at Bellevue and then came back in '76 and lived there from 2005. I saw the effect of the gangs and the drug dealing and crimes and guns because of -- I was working as a nurse, as well as living in Manhattan. And the reality is that the broken windows theory made a huge impact on the city of New York and the people who live there. You know, I've also had the opportunity to work in Washington, D.C.

  • 12:56:34

    LINDAAnd I could see that there's some elements of the broken windows theory being applied, but not to the extent that the police department used it in New York. And it's unfortunate because I think it really does make a difference. And I'd just like to speak to one other issue -- the issue of the abuse of that particular theory. There's feedback. You can use the community boards. I sat on there. I heard of the problems. The police department had its outreach and got feedback from people. Yes, it can be abused. But I think the value of it is incredible, and it really allowed me to stay there safely.

  • 12:57:13

    NNAMDICare to comment on that, George Keller?

  • 12:57:15

    KELLINGI appreciate what she said.

  • 12:57:18

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You've got an interesting comment about broken windows being applied to traffic offenses. Apparently, that's now being used in many cities. What do you think, George Kelling?

  • 12:57:29

    KELLINGWell, there was some interesting research that -- and, in fact, Jim Wilson did the first research with Barbara Boland on the impact of aggressive traffic enforcement on street crimes. And what they found across cities was a strong correlation. For a long time, we didn't -- we -- nobody could really make sense of that.

  • 12:57:50

    KELLINGBut now we're starting to think that, you know, the people who are disorderly and who live in cities in which cars are the predominant means of getting around rather than public transportation, you know, the guy who's disorderly on the street, the person who's disorderly on the street doesn't turn into a model citizen driving either.

  • 12:58:12

    NNAMDII'm afraid you've made your point, and, because that's all the time we have...

  • 12:58:16


  • 12:58:16

    NNAMDI...I'd like to thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:17


  • 12:58:17

    NNAMDIGeorge Kelling is a retired professor of criminology and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute. He and his wife Catherine Coles updated the essay in a book titled "Fixing Broken Windows." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:58:28

    KELLINGThank you for having me.

  • 12:58:29

    NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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