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James. Q. Wilson

James Quinn Wilson, born in Denver, Colorado in 1931, remains one of the most notable architects of modern policing strategies. Crime experts regard Wilson as one of the most influential conservative scholars of his generation. Throughout his career, Wilson played a pivotal role in shaping the theoretical framework of order maintenance policing through social scientific research and criminological arguments. Wilson’s reach across academia and into the political world stemmed from his incredible volume of articles, commentary, and academic papers regarding crime in the 1970s. Wilson began his career in 1952 after obtaining a bachelors degree in political science at the University of Redlands and receiving his doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago in 1959. He entered the professional world of academia as a researcher of African American city politics in 1950s Chicago with his academic mentor, Edward Banfield.

After completing his first book titled Negro Politics: The Search for Leadership, Wilson thrived as a faculty member at Harvard University, the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), and Pepperdine University. In addition to his academic appointments, Wilson spent decades in the public sphere. He served on a number of national commissions and tasks forces, including the President’s White House Task Force on Crime in 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Drug Prevention from 1972-1973, and the Attorney General’s task force on Violent Crime in 1981. In his later years, Wilson worked as an academic consultant for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the American Political Science Association, and the Police Foundation.[1] Throughout his career, Wilson received an array of distinguished awards, seven honorary degrees, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.

During his lifetime, Wilson published hundreds of articles, reviews, and essays covering a wide range of topics from African-American city politics to the moral nature of humankind. Additionally, he authored and coauthored 16 books, including his most popular texts, Varieties of Police Behavior (1968), Thinking about Crime (1975), Crime and Human Nature (1985), and Bureaucracy (1989). Wilson, affectionately known by his colleagues as Jim, recounted his intellectual trajectory into the world of crime in the official newsletter of the American Society of Criminology, The Criminologist, in 1988.[2]  In The Criminologist, Wilson explained that as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, he never intended for crime to become his primary intellectual project. Nonetheless, as Wilson began analyzing the intricacies of urban public affairs, his interest in police administration burgeoned.

As a graduate student, Wilson focused on the nature of “Negro politics” and urban problems of the 1960s. He desired to understand whether or not African American representation in city politics led to the advancement of black political and economic interests or if black politicians “simply cater[ed] to the white dominant political power structure in Chicago.”[3] However, Wilson’s interests shifted as he began to investigate government administration within the context of law enforcement—what Wilson referred to as the study of “police officers as urban bureaucrats.”[4] After Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appointed Orlando W. Wilson as the city’s new police chief, Wilson got involved in a large-scale training program that involved hundreds of local officers. Under Chief Wilson’s directive, the University of Chicago administered a series of training seminars, during which Wilson conducted research on over a thousand urban public administrators. From Wilson’s study, he concluded that “the role of police was shaped by the adversarial relationship between themselves and the public.”[5] In other words, Wilson recognized that police-citizen relationships were largely antagonistic. Furthermore, Wilson believed that police officers operated within a precarious social role that undoubtedly affected the efficacy of law enforcement. 

Wilson’s interaction with Chicago police enabled him to gain firsthand knowledge of police work from the perspective of the officers. During his tenure at Chicago, Wilson met Edward C. Banfield, a renowned professor of political science. After Banfield left Chicago to teach at Harvard University in 1959, Wilson joined Banfield shortly after as political science professor at Harvard in 1961. Wilson continued his policing studies while working in tandem with Banfield. Like Wilson, Banfield had a particular interest in race, politics, and social policy. Banfield’s book, The Unheavenly City (1970) described the disparities of quality of life between blacks and whites as a product of class differences and distinct cultural failings prevalent among poorer populations. His text heavily influenced Wilson’s perspective on African American urban life and crime by introducing Wilson to the privations of “lower class culture.”

In The Unheavenly City, Banfield described poverty-prone blacks as “feeble... suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent... [with] no attachment to community neighbors or friends.” Banfield claimed that “the morality of lower-class culture is pre-conventional, which means that the individual's actions are influenced not by conscience but only by a sense of what he can get away with.” [6] Banfield’s controversial conclusions about the urban underclass underscored his belief in the necessity of preventive detention and institutional confinement for poor blacks susceptible to criminal behavior. Furthermore, he advocated for lawmakers to “abridge to an appropriate degree the freedom of those who in the opinion of a court are extremely likely to commit violent crimes.”[7] As the chairman of the President’s Task Force on Model Cities, Banfield promulgated his ideas. He worked with Wilson and eight other urban experts to fashion together evaluations and recommendations for shaping federal policy regarding urban affairs and housing development.[8] After publishing the Task Force report on September 24th, 1969, the two men agreed to collaborate on City Politics (1963), Banfield became one of Wilson’s most beloved mentors. Their relationship extended for the entirety of Wilson’s professional life up until Banfield’s death in 1999.[9]

Under the tutelage of Edward Banfield, Wilson’s fascination with law enforcement burgeoned. At Harvard, Wilson conducted a comparative study with the Boston and the Los Angeles Police Departments with a particular focus on the urban crisis. Thereafter, Wilson and Banfield uncovered what urban residents described as the biggest urban problem of the day—“crime in the streets.”[10] As a scholar of the sixties, Wilson commented on President Johnson’s decision to place “crime and disorder” front and center of national policy saying, “President Lyndon Johnson refused to believe that there was a problem he could not solve or a slogan he could not defeat.” Moreover, Wilson candidly admitted that Johnson’s “insatiable demand for instant experts on crime…immediately christened [Wilson] an ‘expert’ on law enforcement” despite Wilson’s internal reservations.[11] Thereafter Wilson became a ‘back door criminologist’—a phrase Wilson used to describe his unintentional transition from studying black municipal politics to researching upticks in urban crime. As a “back door criminologist,” Wilson inadvertently adopted the intellectual queries that social scientists of his day used to evaluate and comprehend the problem of crime in underprivileged neighborhoods. Ultimately, Wilson’s interest in crime control and deterrence spurred his collaboration with scholars from a plethora of fields and research specialties in order to produce useful alternatives for policy makers on the frontlines of the War on Crime.

Throughout his career, Wilson maintained strong political ties with top US officials. He developed professional and personal relationships with several Presidents, including Johnson, Ford, Nixon, and Reagan. Moreover, he served on a number of their presidential commissions, committees, and task forces.  As Wilson’s notoriety grew, his perspective on the crime became a highly sought after commodity for policy professionals and police practitioners alike. Similarly, national news publications and magazines published Wilson’s commentary on a variety of topics ranging from policing to marriage. In 1991, UCLA aptly named Wilson “the Prolific Professor” due to his “penchant for political prophecy” and his voluminous collection of over 30 years worth of publications and writings.[12] Wilson’s widespread influence in both the political world and the public sphere solidified his legacy as, what President George W. Bush described as, “the most influential political scientist in America since…Professor Woodrow Wilson.”


[1] University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Anderson Graduate School of Management (AGSM), Biography, Wilson, James Q., Ca. late 1980s, SERIES 6: Teaching/University Affiliation Files, Box 38, Folder 2, James Q. Wilson Papers, 1949 – 2012, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California

[2] The Criminologist, Official Newsletter of the American Society of Criminology, “Entering Criminology Through the Back Door,” Vol. 13, No. 6, November-December, 1988, SERIES 3: Publications and Writings, Box 12, Folder 3, James Q. Wilson Papers, 1949 – 2012, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California

[3] Wattenberg, Ben. "James Q. Wilson Interview." The First Measured Century Interviews. Accessed November 26, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/fmc/interviews/jwilson.htm.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Criminologist, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California

[6] Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis, Little, Brown, Boston, 1970, pp. 53, 62, 211.

[7] Ibid, pp. 245-246.

[8] "Edward C Banfield Model Cities a Step Toward the New Federalism August 1970." Scribd. Accessed February 25, 2017. https://www.scribd.com/document/218445596/Edward-C-Banfield-Model-Cities-a-Step-Toward-the-New-Federalism-August-1970#fullscreen&from_embed.

[9]  Wilson wrote about Banfield in a memorial piece: “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Edward C. Banfield, 1916-1999”, November 1999, SERIES 3: Publications and Writings, Box 11, Folder 26, James Q. Wilson Papers, 1949 – 2012, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California.

To learn more about Wilson’s relationship with Banfield see the following citation:  Correspondence, Incoming, Banfield, Edward C. 1986, June 19; 1994, May 3, SERIES 2: Personal Files, Box 8, Folder 37, James Q. Wilson Papers, 1949 – 2012, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California. This letter written by Wilson and given to Banfield upon his retirement from Harvard encapsulated Wilson’s deep appreciation for his long-term mentor and friend, Ed.

[10] The Criminologist, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California.

[11] Ibid. Wilson characterized the 1960s as a period of “widespread optimism about the possibility of planned social progress” among academics. He explained that all prominent public intellectuals were “on one task force or another” in order to emphasize the ridiculousness of his appointment to the Science Advisory Committee.

[12] “The Prolific Professor” Fall 1991 UCLA Magazine, pages 19-23, SERIES 3: Publications and Writings, Box 14, Folder 15, James Q. Wilson Papers, 1949 – 2012, The James Q. Wilson Collection at RAND Library in Santa Monica, California.

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