Logic of deviance

Print edition : April 06, 2012

A tribute to James Q. Wilson, whose broken windows theory on criminal behaviour applies significantly to the situation in India.

... one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

James Q. Wilson and George Kelling; "Broken Windows"; The Atlantic (1982)

Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.

James Q. Wilson in The Moral Sense(1993)

MOST first-time visitors to India are appalled by the massive urban chaos in the country and wonder how things came to such a pass. This is particularly so if they had been fed with outdated graphic accounts of how India lives in its villages and how agriculture is the sole means of survival for the average citizen. What shocks these travellers is the extent of the disorder on the streets and how nobody seems to be perturbed by it. The picture is the same everywhere: unauthorised structures, including places of worship, bang in the middle of roads; unchecked graffiti and posters on walls, which are ugly to the core; pavements invaded by hawkers; a mind-boggling variety of vehicles (both motorised and non-motorised); and a total lack of respect for traffic rules.

Oprah Winfrey, the celebrated American television show host, made the observation that one of the things that struck her during her recent visit to India was the nonchalant disregard of the red light at traffic junctions. In my view nothing illustrates the widespread lack of urban discipline more than this apparently petty transgression of the law, even under the watchful eye of a helpless policeman. This contempt for the red light considered a sacrilege in most countries across the globe does not invite from most Indians the outrage that it legitimately should. Not minding the red light is perhaps symbolic of the Indian psyche, which trivialises this flagrant violation of the most fundamental of civic duties. The question is: Can Indians afford to ignore such lack of culture on the streets, all because they smugly believe that they are otherwise god-fearing, respectful of elders and set much store by charity towards the poor and can therefore be pardoned for committing lesser infractions?

Professor James Q. Wilson, the famous American political scientist and criminologist who passed away recently, would not have thought so had he been invited to give his opinion of the Indian scene. In his celebrated writings, the basic theme was that such conduct, when left uncorrected and unpunished, provided delinquency-prone citizens the incentive to commit major crimes with no feelings of remorse whatsoever.

Wilson and his life-long friend Prof. George Kelling, who endorsed the former's views on the genesis of urban crime, summed up their logic in the seminal essay Broken Windows, which was published in 1982 in the well-known monthly journal The Atlantic. Their hypothesis was that if one broken window in a locality remained unattended for a long time it sent out the message that no one in the area cared for public order and, also, that anyone who committed a crime there would go scot-free. This theory on crime carries more than a nugget of wisdom and is still relevant although three decades have gone by since the two perceptive scholars put their thoughts down in a serious American journal.

Zero tolerance

Incidentally, it was the broken windows theory that eventually inspired another approach to law enforcement, namely, zero tolerance, an expression that has unfortunately been used rather loosely in the recent past. If Wilson's logic had a substantial impact on criminal justice policymaking in the United States, its influence on street-level policing in many cities, especially New York, was even greater. A detailed reference to his life and views on matters of crime and public policy is an appropriate tribute to a man who successfully fused theory with practice.

Born in Denver (Colorado) and raised in Long Beach (California), Wilson graduated from the University of Redlands near Los Angeles. After a brief career in the Navy during the Korean War, he returned to his studies to earn a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago. Later, he taught public administration at Harvard for 25 years, followed by stints at Pepperdine University and the University of California at Los Angeles. Very early in his career, he showed a marked concern for trends in society and had a preference for practice over theory while formulating public policy. He was no fuzzy ideologue who talked above the ordinary human being.

It was logical, therefore, that Wilson and Kelling, drawing from their findings in deprived areas such as Newark, a high-crime city in New Jersey with a large black population, attributed (in Broken Windows) criminal behaviour to official tolerance of or indifference to petty offences.

The two academics were not taken notice of immediately. It took more than a decade for anybody to act on their veiled exhortation to law enforcement officials that they should act against every offender, however small his deviant act might be. Softness to crime, even when it did not seem to have a definable victim, was an invitation to serious crime. In effect, the two professors were opponents of decriminalisation, a growing modern trend, especially in the field of drugs and prostitution.

JAMES Q. WILSON, the political scientist and criminologist who, along with George Kelling, helped create a law-and-order revolution in the United States.-REUTERS/BOSTON COLLEGE


The first person to take the two men seriously was Bill Bratton, the celebrity Commissioner of Police of the New York Police Department, or NYPD, (1994-2001), who worked under an equally famous Mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Even in his previous assignment as the head of the New York Transit Police, Bratton's actions were influenced by broken windows. He applied it more seriously and intensely, however, when he took over the NYPD. With the blessings of a dynamic Mayor who had political ambitions, Bratton launched a major drive against beggars, drug dealers and similar vagrants who were more a public nuisance than a threat to life and property. Serious felonies soon dropped dramatically in the city, and this was attributed to Bratton's new style of policing. He moved on to Los Angeles after serious differences with Giuliani. There he continued what he had started in New York City, and violent crime again went down.

Some critics of the high-profile policeman attributed the trends in both cities to a coincidental general drop in drug offences and not to the new style of policing. There was a simultaneous complaint that Bratton's tactics of aggressive law enforcement were an antithesis to democracy and could not be endorsed. Whatever the truth, Wilson and Kelling continued to inspire police experiments across the country.

Wilson was no ordinary criminologist but a political scientist who was interested in exploring why humans behaved as they did in society and the incentives that made them conform to an established order. One of his first books, Negro Politics (1960), analysed the role of blacks in urban politics.

As part of his teaching of public administration, he had to pay some attention to how police departments in the country worked. His book Varieties of Police Behaviour was an offshoot of this, and it earned him an invitation to serve on the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967). He attributed his being chosen for the prestigious assignment to the fact that there were probably few criminologists in the country who had an interest in public policy as well. From this time onwards, Wilson started studying in depth crime and the social decay that afflicted some important cities.

Conservative to the core

Wilson was a conservative to the core. This was reflected in all his writings, particularly when he articulated the stand that every culture had a moral disposition despite wide differences in rules and regulations. In his The Moral Sense (1993), he sought an answer to the question Why do people not commit crime? instead of trying to deal with the trite query Why do people commit crime? His clear stand was that unrestrained liberalism was dangerous because it eroded the faith in good behaviour. He was an optimist. This is why he believed that people could be trained to be moral in dealing with others, and this was perhaps the basis for his belief in strict policing of even minor violations of the law.

Wilson cannot be dismissed as a visionary or a hardliner whose views are no longer relevant, particularly because he spoke of a moral order that has to dictate society. His ideas may not bring about a crime-free society. However, taken seriously, they will at least curb the human instinct of non-conformity and rebellion and persuade the average individual not to be a hindrance to law-abiding citizens who want to carry on with their avocation without causing offence to others. Liberty at home and falling in line with the traditional code of conduct while interacting with society at large can greatly reduce the penal role of law enforcement. This is what Wilson stood for in his writing. One needs to study him with all seriousness.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor