Tuesday, February 19, 2013
James Q. Wilson’s “Broken Windows”
Speech to the Grants Pass City Council, 3/21/12
I did not know the name of James Q. Wilson until he died and was being eulogized, but I had heard about the policy that resulted from a 1982 article that he co-authored in the Atlantic Monthly, “Broken Windows.” I had heard about it months before on NPR when they were interviewing a new police chief who was using it to restore law and order to Cincinnati, as New York and Los Angeles have done previously. It was good to hear what I had already been telling the City of Grants Pass: Law depends on order. “Take care of the little things,” he said, “and the big things will take care of themselves.”
Wilson focused on broken windows; I look at weeds and litter. It is the same issue; preserving basic order that shows criminals and respectable people that police are doing their job of policing, rather than only driving from call to call, responding to major crimes and drug trafficking, or doing traffic patrol. In order to preserve basic order that makes people feel safe, police must get out of their cars and walk neighborhoods, warning the slobs among us to clean up our acts or be cited and fined.
I read Mr. Wilson’s famous article, and found that he was more focused on controlling nuisance people like drunks, panhandlers, prostitutes, and groups of teens than on people who neglect their properties, and he makes no mention of city nuisance codes as a tool of enforcing order.
Broken windows are a sign of disorder, and one that is not fixed invites more. But they are several steps down the line of deterioration in public order. It starts with weeds and litter; property neglect. People in search of evil fun rarely throw stones at well-kept, occupied buildings. Weeds invite litter. Weeds and litter invite tagging, window breaking, and junk that the neighbors don’t want to haul away. All of this disorder makes orderly people nervous, while giving disorderly people comfort that their bad habits and evil fun will be tolerated.
It isn’t just tall weeds and big litter, either. Seeding weeds, regardless of height, look disorderly, are a nuisance to neighbors, and invite litter. Even cigarette butts and small shards of glass are visible and invite larger litter. People don’t consciously see these things unless they are trained to, but the subconscious sees all, and takes them as permission to add their bit to the mess, unconsciously. Forgive them; they literally do not know what they do.