Yale Law School’s Tracey Meares Discusses Policing and Community Trust

Convening Yale

Public trust is the greatest asset a police officer can have when it comes to keeping communities safe, and police need to rethink their role in order to improve this critical relationship, Tracey L. Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, told students at the Yale School of Management on March 2. 

“An incredible body of research shows that how legal authorities treat us impacts how we see each other and how we see ourselves as citizens,” Meares said. “These laws and these relationships tell us who we are by how we’re valuing the freedom of everyone.”

Meares spoke at Yale SOM as part of Convening Yale, a lecture series that brings scholars from across the Yale campus to Evans Hall to share their expertise with SOM students. In a talk titled “Police Legitimacy and Police Reform,” Meares discussed her research focusing on communities, police legitimacy, and legal policy.  

Meares served on a task force created by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.  The Task Force was charged with giving Obama recommendations on how to promote effective crime reduction while creating greater trust between police and communities. During the ensuing discussions, and through her own research, Meares has come to appreciate the importance of private citizens placing their trust in police, she said. 

During interactions with the police, people want to believe that authorities are acting out of a sense of benevolence, Meares said: “I want to believe that the police officer I’m dealing with believes that I count.” The dynamic between police and the public is “relational” not “instrumental,” she added, which why it’s so difficult to address from a policy perspective. 

The Obama task force recommended that law enforcement change the way it thinks about itself and adopt a “guardian mindset” as opposed to a “warrior mindset,” Meares said. The task force also recommended that agencies acknowledge past discrimination, and advised that police be judicious about employing “aggressive” police action to make communities safer, since they can also erode public trust. “If we are going to get this work done, we have to have a serious commitment to deeper change,” she said.

Meares also pointed out that whether police are effective at crime reduction is potentially a different issue than building trust. Nationally, crime has dropped in the last 30 years—within the exception of certain areas recently—but public trust in the police has not increased, she said. This raises the question of whether public trust is generated simply because police are good at fighting crime.  It turns out, however, that public trust can be a great aid to police, in that it supports compliane with the law as well as engagement with authorities and cooperation with them. “Research demonstrates that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe authorities have the right to tell them what to do,” Meares said.

Police—as well as other authorities—establish this “right” by treating people fairly and with respect. “People place more weight on how authorities exercise power as opposed to the ends of that power,” Meares said. “They care how they are treated—with dignity, politeness, and concern for their rights.”

About the Event

Please join us on Thursday, March 2 for Police Legitimacy and Police Reform, a Convening Yale event with Tracey L. Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.  Professor Meares has done important work, both academically and in practice, focusing on communities, police legitimacy and legal policy. 

She has theorized about the role of police, particularly in urban areas, and has developed training models used across the country in cities as diverse as Chicago, Oakland, Minneapolis, Birmingham, Pittsburgh, and New York City.

Drawing on her recent service as a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Professor Meares will connect the Task Force’s recommendations that were made to President Obama with her recent research on police reform and discuss the relevance of both in a world in which federal efforts to push police reform are likely to diminish.

This event is open to the Yale Community.

Biography

Tracey L. Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.  Before joining the faculty at Yale, she served as a professor at The University of Chicago Law School from 1995 to 2007. She was the first African American woman to be granted tenure at both law schools. Professor Meares’s teaching and research interests focus on criminal procedure and criminal law policy with a particular emphasis, at the moment, on policing.  She has worked extensively with the federal government having served on the Committee on Law and Justice, a National Research Council Standing Committee of the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Science Advisory Board.  In December 2014, President Obama named her as a member of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She has a B.S. in general engineering from the University of Illinois and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.