James Q. Wilson, one of the most important political scientists of the last half century, passed away today at the age of 80. The cause of death was listed as leukemia. He taught at Harvard for a number of years, then taught at UCLA for a decade until 1997, and then was the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University until his retirement in 2009.

Much of his work involved urban policy. Perhaps his most influential work was ‘Broken Windows’, an article he co-authored in 1982 with George Kelling. Basically, the premise to this article was that a cause of the high levels of crime prevalent in many cities was that small problems were allowed to lie fallow, providing an environment that induces society to accept more major crimes. Once major crimes become commonplace, the police and law-abiding people have a difficult time making their community safe once more.

Many cities successfully employed Wilson’s system. Probably the most famous example was New York City. At the time, as anyone who rode the subways during that period could attest, fare jumpers were commonplace and cars were filled with graffiti. Well, a zero-tolerance system was put in place. Cars were immediately taken out of service and repainted when graffiti was painted on; fare jumpers who were caught were arrested and charged with a crime. Eventually, people realized that it wasn’t much fun to spend their time painting a subway car if nobody ever saw it; fare jumpers realized that the cost savings wasn’t worth spending time in prison.

Rudy Giuliani then expanded this on surface streets. Petty annoyances such as public urination, squeegee beggars, and public drunkenness were all attacked the same way. In a few years, studies showed that the rates of both minor and major crimes had significantly declined.

Wilson wrote a number of political science books as well. Many of you who took American Politics in college may have used one of his two texts, American Politics, Then and Now or American Government. His most important book to my mind was City Politics, which explained coalition formation in politics and policy in our metropolitan areas.

I briefly met him while in grad school at a conference. One of my mentors, who is of equal importance as Wilson, introduced me to him soon after my first article was published. I was stunned that he was familiar with it, and wanted to talk to silly me about it. He was a kind and gentle man who vastly improved our nation. He will be missed by everyone in the field.