George L. Kelling, a criminologist whose “broken windows” theory, conceived with James Q. Wilson, revolutionized policing in America by targeting lesser infractions that stoke fear and unrest in urban neighborhoods, died on Wednesday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Catherine M. Coles. The cause was complications of cancer.
Drawing on earlier research and his own field studies in Newark and Kansas City, Mo., Professor Kelling popularized “broken windows” in a 7,000-word article he wrote in The Atlantic magazine in 1982 with Professor Wilson (whom he credited with coming up with the term).
The premise of the article was that even “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares” in a community, and that such neglect could lead to unbridled disorder. Maintaining order and preventing crime, the two argued, go hand in hand.
Professor Kelling had been a seminarian, a social worker and a probation officer; he taught at Rutgers University and was a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Professor Wilson taught government and public policy at Harvard and later at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Their “broken windows” strategy was widely embraced by law enforcement agencies. Police officers began reasserting their prerogative to pursue drunks, prostitutes, vagrants, subway turnstile jumpers and, notoriously, the so-called squeegee men who washed windshields, unsolicited, for money in stopped traffic.
All had come to be disregarded as relatively minor nuisances and largely ignored, in part because of shrinking police resources and in part because of changing mores that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former Democratic senator from New York, had described as “defining deviancy down.”
William J. Bratton, the former police commissioner in New York City and Boston and a former chief in Los Angeles, said in an interview that Professor Kelling had “been the most profound influence on American policing in the last 40 or 50 years.”
“I put into practice his theories,” he added, “and they worked.”
Professors Kelling and Wilson viewed their strategy as a foundation for community policing — a means of addressing the causes behind patterns of complaints and recurring infractions, often by repeat offenders, that, they believed, bred more serious crime and fostered a climate of chaos.
But their thinking proved divisive in criminology. Detractors dismissed it as unproved neoconservative pablum that gave the police a reflexive excuse to arrest people for minor misconduct and that resulted in mass incarceration.
Professors Kelling and Wilson had themselves warned from the outset that the strategy could prompt complaints of racial profiling and worse if officers applied it with insufficient discretion.
And, in retrospect, in an interview in 2014, Professor Kelling agreed that the policy had at times been misapplied.
He contrasted the broken windows idea, which is supposed to prevent crime by focusing on minor offenses, with wholesale stopping and frisking, a police tactic predicated on suspicion, and with zero tolerance, which he described as “zealotry and no discretion — the opposite of what I tried to preach.”
While the theory was at first largely untested, no one has doubted that it had an impact. The dimensions of its influence, however, have been debated.
In their Atlantic article, titled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” Professors Kelling and Wilson cited a 1969 study by Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, who left one car on a street in a poor Bronx neighborhood and another on a street in upscale Palo Alto, Calif., both with their hoods up and without license plates.
The Bronx car was stripped clean within 24 hours. The one in California sat untouched for a week, but was vandalized within hours after Dr. Zimbardo smashed it with a sledgehammer. (In both cases the vandals appeared to be “primarily respectable whites,” the article said.)
Professors Kelling and Wilson wrote, “The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization — namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked.”
They added: “The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions.
“If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passers-by, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.”
George Lee Kelling was born on Aug. 21, 1935, in Milwaukee to George and Mathilda (Benn) Kelling. His father was a firefighter, his mother a factory worker and homemaker.
He attended Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary for two years, then transferred to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He went on to earn a master’s in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a doctorate in social welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
His first marriage, to Sally Jean Mosiman, ended in divorce. He married Ms. Coles, a lawyer and urban anthropologist, in 1982. She has been a research associate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and together they wrote “Fixing Broken Windows,” published in 1996.
In addition to his wife, Professor Kelling is survived by a son, George, and a daughter, Kristin Lee Kelling Hayden, both from his first marriage; and four grandchildren.
Professor Wilson died in 2012 at 80.
In 1972, after working as a probation officer and running a residential-care program for troubled youths, Professor Kelling was hired as a consultant to the National Police Foundation, a research and advocacy group, to evaluate how best to deploy officers. (Professor Wilson was later chairman of the group, from 1984 to 1993.)
In two studies he conducted, the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment and the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment, he concluded that foot patrols focusing on high-crime areas were effective deterrents to crime, and that even random encounters between residents and officers made the residents feel safer and improved relations between the police and the community.
“I guess you could say that Jim Wilson was the theoretical part, but George wasn’t an ivory tower intellectual,” Lawrence J. Mone, the president of the Manhattan Institute, said in an interview. “George was always in the trenches.”
Robert Wasserman, who had recruited Professor Kelling to work for the Police Foundation, later introduced him to Mr. Bratton, who was then a sergeant with the Boston Police Department. At the urging of Mr. Wasserman and Professor Kelling, Mr. Bratton was hired to run the Transit Police in New York City and went on to serve two terms as the city’s police commissioner.
Even in 1982, Professors Kelling and Wilson were aware that their theory was bound to generate a racial backlash. When people from minority groups are disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of crime, they asked, is it racist to focus police resources on them?
“How do we insure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?” they wrote.
“We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question,” they continued. “We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority.”
But Professor Kelling warned a decade later in The New York Times, “When you turn people into warriors, and there are wars on crime and wars on drugs, don’t be surprised when they abide by the rules of warfare rather than the rules of peacekeeping.”
In 2014, Eric Garner, a black man suspected of selling untaxed loose cigarettes on Staten Island, died during a struggle with police officers. An officer is currently facing possible dismissal over charges of reckless use of a chokehold and intentional restriction of breathing; a grand jury had declined to indict him in Mr. Garner’s death in 2014.
“While broken windows doesn’t lead inexorably to a homicide like Eric Garner’s,” Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at City University School of Law, said in an interview, “the more you turn loose 35,000 officers with the mandate to restore order, the more you increase the chances for something to go horribly wrong.”
But Professor Kelling defended the “broken windows” strategy, as conceived, if not always as carried out.
“It started as an observation, but since then there’s been science,” he said.
“Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is,” Professors Kelling and Wilson wrote. “But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”
“It goes back to Sir Robert Peel,” Professor Kelling said in the interview, invoking the founder of Britain’s Metropolitan Police and the namesake of its uniformed “bobbies.” “The sign of an effective police department is the absence of crime. Not the activities dealing with it, like an arrest.”
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