The Back Door Criminologist: Wilson Meets Kelling

In the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the late sixties, Ivy League experts on urban crime garnered strong political traction with policymakers and police practitioners. As hundreds of US cities burned in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, President Johnson’s team of domestic security advisors poured over crime commission reports in search of viable police reform options. After signing the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, Johnson’s War on Crime laid the groundwork for a strategy that criminologists referred to as order maintenance policing. The Act funneled federal funds toward local, state, and national law enforcement institutions dedicated to strengthening police efficacy and advancing “the development of new methods for the prevention and reduction of crime and the detection and apprehension of criminals.”[1]

The federal government’s call for more robust “research and development” efforts provided criminal justice scholars with the intellectual firepower needed to jumpstart the order maintenance movement’s transformative impact on urban America. The urgency to quell widespread fear of crime motivated federal agencies established under the Safe Streets Act, namely the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), to amp up its funding capacities and invest resources into public and private programs dedicated to tackling the crime crisis.[2] Instrumental organizations like the International Association of Police Chiefs and the Ford Foundation doubled down on their fundraising initiatives and bolstered opportunities for academics to conduct field research on policing in crime-ridden spaces across the US. The Ford Foundation played an especially significant role in furthering criminological studies with the founding of the national Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. in 1970. This newly instituted research powerhouse focused exclusively on the nonpartisan advancement of law enforcement practices through the enhanced empirical study of policing as a science.[3] The Police Foundation alone raised 30 million dollars to advance policing research throughout the decade.[4] The heightened national attention on law enforcement and criminal behavior generated unprecedented access to public and private funding sources for criminological theorists. As a result, prominent academics felt empowered to introduce innovative police research that challenged existing theories of criminality, law enforcement, and maintaining social order.[5]

James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling were among these newly empowered scholars who gained significant political attention for their ideas and recommendations regarding crime control. The political hysteria surrounding the War on Crime propelled the work of these notable scholars into the national limelight. As public paranoia intensified, Wilson, Kelling, and collaborators advocated for more police patrol tactics aimed at eliminating social disorder in urban communities. Backed by the salient “law and order” rhetoric of national political figures like Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, Wilson and Kelling popularized theories of order maintenance policing and criminal deterrence for over three decades. Wilson and Kelling’s contributions underscored the political philosophy of “law and order”—a salient idea encapsulated by Barry Goldwater’s infamous “tough on crime” campaign and adamant endorsement of aggressive policing and increased incarceration. As politicians latched onto the political promise of “law and order,” Wilson and Kelling’s ideas fueled the intellectual development of order maintenance policing practices designed to combat America’s urban crime problem.


[1] "Omnibus Crime Control And Safe Streets Act Of 1968 42 U.S.C. § 3789d." Omnibus Crime Control And Safe Streets Act Of 1968 42 U.S.C. § 3789d | CRT | Department of Justice. Accessed February 10, 2017. https://www.justice.gov/crt/omnibus-crime-control-and-safe-streets-act-1968-42-usc-3789d.

[2] Hinton, Elizabeth Kai. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016, pg. 86

[3] "History of the Police Foundation." Police Foundation. Accessed October 26, 2016. https://www.policefoundation.org/about/history/.

[4] Kelling, George L. Recollections of James Q. Wilson and Broken Windows. MS. 2012. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://contemporarythinkers.org/jq-wilson/files/2013/05/Kelling-on-Wilson.pdf.

[5] The Police Foundation established a key platform for “police science” to flourish in the 1970s and 80s. A full review of Police Foundation history in the 1970s can be found using the following citation. "The Early Years." Police Foundation. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://www.policefoundation.org/about/history/the-early-years/.