Wilson, Loury, and the varieties of “broken windows”

Glenn Loury blames Jim Wilson for the excesses of “broken windows” policing. I (mostly) dissent.

Glenn Loury says that James Q. Wilson – his friend, and mine – “died with an awful lot to answer for.”

Well, yes. Goes with the territory.

All of us who try to shape public policy with our ideas run the risk that our ideas turn out to be wrong, or that expressing even correct ideas turns out to push policy in what turns out to be the wrong direction. Predictions are indeed dangerous, especially about the future, and attempts at action are even more dangerous than predictions.

James Q. Wilson helped move the discourse about crime and crime control away from the root causes/rehabilitationist orthodoxy of the 1960s and toward the much more punitive turn that has characterized American crime policy since the late 1970s. In my view, the first chunk of the build-up in punitive capacity – say, adding the first half-million cells – was probably a good idea; adding the next million-and-a-half was almost certainly a bad idea, as Wilson himself came to recognize.

But Glenn focuses on Wilson’s most famous contribution to the crime-control debate: the idea of “broken windows.” He writes:

The broken windows argument—by cracking down on minor offenses, the police can prevent the perception of disorder that leads to more serious crimes—has influenced urban law enforcement strategists throughout the nation. Even so, as scholarly critics across the ideological spectrum have noted, there is little evidence beyond the anecdotal to show that such “quality of life” policing actually leads to lower crime rates.

That’s a correct account of the “broken windows” argument as widely understood, and as acted on by some police departments. It’s not, however, something Jim Wilson actually said, or believed.

“Broken windows” is actually a family of ideas. The one that is clearly correct is that, in neighborhoods tormented by the fear of crime, residents use disorderly conditions – groups of kids hanging out on streetcorners, drinking and yelling rude things at passers-by, streetwalking, and grafitti – as an index of how dangerous the neighborhood is, and that therefore reducing the extent of disorder can make people feel safer even if it doesn’t reduce the crime rate. (That’s important, because fear imposes more costs that completed crime.) Moreover, reducing one sort of disorder can influence other sorts, as people take signals from the environment about what is, and isn’t, locally acceptable behavior.

Call that “Broken Windows (A).” It led to the squeegee crackdown in Manhattan. Not the world’s most important insight, but correct and sometimes useful.

A related idea is that, in the course of doing order-maintenance policing, police sometimes find people with illegal weapons, or people wanted on felony warrants. That’s what happened when NYPD cracked down on turnstile-jumpers in the subways. At first, a lot of them had guns. The density of guns among arrestees fell over time, along with the frequency of armed robbery in the subways, suggesting that the tactic had successfully deterred gun-carrying among offenders. Call that “Broken Windows (B).” Again, the evidence that this sometimes happens is clear, and the benefits of acting on it when conditions are right are substantial.

Now contrast that with the idea Glenn cites; call that “Broken Windows (C).” Under that theory, reducing disorderly behavior will reduce serious crime because serious offenders use disorderly conditions as an index of the extent to which an area is out of control and therefore a safe place for offending. Jim’s co-author George Kelling is a fan of that view, and it’s beloved by NY Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. But, as Glenn notes, evidence for it is slight, and the policing tactics that result from it can be tremendously oppressive. If aggressive “order maintenance” policing deters serious crime at the expense of making black teenagers afraid to play outside in their own neighborhoods, I doubt the game is worth the candle.

But Jim didn’t think there was any good reason to believe the extreme claims for Broken Windows (C), and to my knowledge never urged tactics based on it.

On one point I think Glenn is simply wrong as a matter of fact.

It frustrates me that even as mounting evidence over the past decade showed that crime control had become too punitive, Wilson stubbornly reiterated the views that he had developed four decades ago.

I heard Wilson tell an audience at the Reagan Library – this would have been about 2008 – that mass incarceration had become as serious a problem as crime. He gave When Brute Force Fails – which is posed largely as a critique of Wilson’s Thinking About Crime (and Gary Becker’s economics of crime), and which argues that we need less punishment, not more – an astoundingly enthusiastic endorsement.

Did Jim Wilson stick with “tough-on-crime” longer than he should have? Yes he did. So did I. But was he willing to reconsider his deeply-held views in the face of fresh evidence and logic? Yes he was, to an unusual degree.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Wilson, Loury, and the varieties of “broken windows””

  1. Well, I know if at least one (former) Harvard professor who escaped, for whatever reason, the “tough-on-crime” regime he rightly deplores.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for another thoughtful appraisal of Wilson and his work. I have noticed that you and others who wrote about him after his death never mention his big book (co-written with Richard Herrnstein), Crime and Human Nature. I recall that this book–or at least certain parts of it–was very controversial when it was published. Can you say something about it and how you would assess its value?

    1. I’m much more of a fan of Crime and Human Nature than is currently fashionable. Its focus on “constitutional factors” marks an important step away from the “crime-as-rationally-chosen-behavior” model. W&H don’t discuss “behavioral economics,” but their approach points toward the possibility that crime is driven by imperfectly rational behavior. And the focus on individual variation as opposed to situational factors is another useful corrective. It’s no surprise that Wilson was far more eager than most in the field to embrace the idea that reducing lead exposure might have played a role in reducing crime; some social scientists I know seem to think that bringing biology into the question is somehow cheating.

  3. The politically powerful and elite have obsessive personalities that drive them to require the physical environment to be molded to reflect their internal view of reality. Not only must the environment reflect their internal view but they must be the arranger with no less ability to include or prune than a florist arranging flowers.

    In their world view only they can define the issues and the changes to be made. The obsessed can not psychologically allow or imagine the neighborhood being influenced by local citizens much less revitalized by the community involved.

    The police are there to mold the neighborhood to the desires and requirements of the obsessed. They are not there to empower locals to participate in defining the actual problems and assist the locals in fixing their identified problems themselves.

    Look up The Boston Project and David Kennedy. Take a look for a way for Communities to participate in helping themselves. This has morphed into The National Network for Safe Communities. http://www.nnscommunities.org/

    My community would not go this way as the powerful viewed community involvement and selection of community leaders by local neighborhoods as a threat to their power and worse.

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