A Tribute to Herman Goldstein, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson: Contributions to the Field of Criminal Justice

NIJ Director John H. Laub
Harvard Executive Sessions, Boston, Mass.
January 13, 2011

I am faced with an impossible task: 10 minutes to honor Herman Goldstein, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson for their contributions to the field. Gee, it would be easier to travel to Boston for a meeting in the middle of January! Did that memo from Chris Stone and Christine Cole last month really say, "There is no snow on the ground yet?" I lived in Boston for 18 years ... why would you tempt the snow gods?

Seriously, I am honored to be speaking about these three individuals whom I first met when I was a graduate student in the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany during the mid-1970s — not them personally, but their classic works in my graduate classes: Wilson's Varieties of Police Behavior (1968); Goldstein's The Urban Police Function (1973) and Policing a Free Society (1977); and Kelling's The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment (1974).

One of my dreams at NIJ is to create, foster and sustain "translational criminology" — bringing the best research to practice and vice versa. These three individuals are exemplars in this regard. In the brief time I have, though, rather than repeating some of the substantive themes in their work, I wish to make three points as to what I see as an integral part of their enduring contribution to the field. Indeed, embedded in these points are lessons as to how the field needs to move forward.

The Power of Ideas

I wish to point out that Goldstein, Kelling and Wilson did not offer a specific intervention per se, nor did they evaluate a specific program. Rather, they created a new research agenda for policing and public safety by focusing on powerful ideas that were foundational in nature.

Not surprisingly, these ideas had huge impact on the field and transformed the field as we knew it. Think about it for a moment: police discretion, order maintenance, problem-oriented policing, community policing, fear, disorder, crime, and broken windows, to name some of the key concepts of concern in the writings of Goldstein, Kelling and Wilson. It is hard to imagine a world of policing at large — and the Harvard Executive Sessions, in particular — where these ideas did not exist.

The Power of Observation

So much of our current research focuses on the application of fancy statistical methods that we often lose sight of the importance of asking good research questions. What is significant about the works of Goldstein, Kelling and Wilson is that they relied on the power of observation, sober thinking and good old-fashioned logic. Moreover, when I think of these three individuals, what I admire most of all is their courage to follow the data in a nonideological manner. The question that was always at the center of their work was, "What do the data say regarding the best strategies for citizens and the police that will in turn benefit the community at large?" Often the answer forced them to confront the serious challenges of race, class, crime and the police in the urban context, but they did not back off from such confrontations.

Clarity of Expression

Like many, I have been deeply troubled by past and current public discourse on crime and criminal justice. As individuals — and as a field — we need to do much more to contribute effectively to the discourse on crime, both at the policy level and with the general public. Part of the problem lies within ourselves, and I think Goldstein, Kelling and Wilson should be role models for the field at large. Too often today, we are writing and saying more and more about less and less. Imagine how much better the field would be if we followed the principle offered by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In discussing science, Dr. Fauci stated that what we need is "precision of thought and economy of expression." As I have often said to my liberal friends, what bothers you most about James Q. Wilson is that he is an excellent writer and makes a very persuasive argument. 

PostScript: The Role of Criminological Theory

Before I close, I have a postscript. I do not know Herman Goldstein, but I do know George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, and I am well aware of their disdain for criminologists, especially criminological theorists. What is ironic is that I cannot think of better supporters and promoters for the idea of informal social control theory than George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. So, as someone who embraces the importance of criminological theory for better understanding policy and practice, I welcome Kelling and Wilson as brothers-in-arms.

Now, please join me in giving a loud and hearty round of applause to Herman Goldstein, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson for their many contributions to the field.

Date Created: February 23, 2011