Professor Tracey Meares has sandwiched this trip to Chicago between two teaching days at the Yale Law School, timing it for when her kids are out of the house. On this cool Thursday morning in May 2017, she’s back in her favorite city, where she lived for almost 20 years. She’s come to Chicago State University to help train investigators for the city’s new Civilian Office of Police Accountability. At Yale, she teaches students in their 20s, in a wood-paneled room hung with portraits in oil, but here in this windowless, fluorescent-lit room, her students are three dozen former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and ex-cops. They will soon begin investigating complaints against Chicago’s often reviled police.
Meares, 50, paces as she speaks, pausing now and then to scrawl on a whiteboard. She begins by telling the group that she rejects the conventional idea that, above all, police should be crime fighters. Police should be guardians, she says, not warriors who alienate the people they have sworn to protect. Moreover, “Aggressive policing is not very powerful at all,” says Meares. “It is expensive, and it frequently backfires.”
Meares’s visit today is part of a larger undertaking. For 20 years, she has been combining legal scholarship with social science research to study policing. She represents a growing cadre of police chiefs, mayors, and criminal justice scholars who advocate “procedural justice,” an approach to policing that fosters mutual respect between police and civilians. Meares didn’t originate procedural justice, but, along with Tom R. Tyler, Yale’s Macklin Fleming Professor of Law, she has verified, explained, and championed its principles nationwide.
Meares argues that our democratic system will work better if people can view representatives of the state, including police, as allies. “When people trust the institutions they have a right to rely on, it’s more democratic, it’s more fair. It’s really a fundamental component of citizenship.”
She has shared these ideas with the police themselves, both by visiting police departments and by teaching other trainers. “Tracey Meares has been on the leading edge of translating the principles of justice and legitimacy,” says former New Orleans and Nashville police chief Ronal Serpas. She’s also made her case in high places. When President Barack Obama created his Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2014, he named Meares as one of 11 members.
Read the full Yale Alumni Magazine article.