Wilson, Loury, and the Varieties of “Broken Windows”

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 – whose theme is that we need less punishment, and poses itself largely as a critique of Thinking About Crimean 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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.