The Push For Better Policing
This episode of Conversations with Chanda dives deep into policing with Tracey L. Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. Chanda and Tracey discuss the challenges police departments face as they work to ensure public safety while also building public trust.
Souphak Kienitz 00:04
You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda — a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest most vexing problems, hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:15
This is Tracey Meares joining me on Conversations with Chanda. Tracey, will you do a quick introduction of yourself before we dive in?
Tracey Meares 00:25
Sure, my name is Tracey Meares, I’m a professor at Yale Law School. I also co-founded and direct along with Tom Tyler, the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, which is a research center that focuses on the social science of justice, among other things, we work with students, we work with researchers, we try to work with institutions on the ground doing the work, but also try to advance theories of transformation. And I work more directly with Chanda at the Joyce Foundation, where we both serve as directors on the board.
Chanda Smith Baker 01:09
Yes, we do. I’m so happy to serve there with you and learn from you and grow with you and give back to our region in that way. One of the ways that we bonded is one, you’re just a great person, but overall the things that we’re experiencing here, I met you, and I don’t know, you know, George Floyd, everything happened. And I just think I just reached out like, what the hell Tracey? Like, I don’t know which way is up and which way is down? And I guess my first question, because you are, you know, working across this country is what the conversation about Minnesota is right now?
Tracey Meares 01:44
I think Minnesota is in the middle of a maelstrom, which, you know, is stating the obvious, but in the context of thinking about transformation and change, you all are have experienced a number of very high profile judicial cases that people focus on, understandably, in the context of trying to achieve some kind of accountability for individual wrongs, each one of which represents a systemic problem, that people understandably want to try to change in some way and are struggling to connect up. Whether and how these individual cases affect that system. Impact that system in some way, whether these individual cases are part of the journey of transformation. And so, each case is important, of course, you know, it’s hard to deny, obviously, the meaning of guilty verdicts to the families who have lost loved ones. And then at the same time, you know, those of us who think more and more wonky ways about policy, we see in a we expect all the ways in which those cases, once you set aside, the role they play, and accountability and back in acknowledgement of harm, right, it’s predictable. To us, the ways in which focusing on those particular cases, or whatever happens in those particular cases, ultimately won’t be that meaningful. That’s, that’s not a surprise. Okay, but how to figure out how to talk about that. And a context in which people are understandably focused on those individual cases, and people don’t really have the capacity, don’t have the training, don’t have the perspective, you know, to think about all the things that are necessary to really have transformation of these systems. That’s a really, really difficult situation to be in, especially when you keep having case after case after case, right because you as a, as a person who you know, thinks about all the ways in which the puzzle pieces fit together, you know, you’re going to be focusing on institutions of criminal legal processing, but you’re also going to be focusing on housing justice, and you’re also going to be focusing on education and you’re also going to be talking about food insecurity, all of which, of course, is a part of addressing the safety deprivation, that so many citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I guess is still in your purview maybe are experiencing and you know, trying to get people to focus on that complicated interlocking network, even while the media and folks are focused on particular cases and individual names is so hard. I mean, I was talking for a while and sorry, but like, I do think that that’s kind of the essence of, of the difficulty why you can say things like, I don’t know up from down and you know which way to go. Right.
Chanda Smith Baker 05:19
After each of our notable cases, people want to act, we move quickly, and we make decisions. People want to understand the issue, and we just we just smoke. We’re seeing that. Now, we saw that after George Floyd, we’ve seen it after Philando to some extent with pretextual stops, and then we had Daunte Wright, pretext stop. We’ve seen it after George Floyd, to some extent, the Breanna Taylor case with no knock warrants, and now we have it with a mirror lock. So, we’re moving quickly, we thought that we had a decision, no knock warrants, and obviously was not the case. And so now we’re moving and we have a moratorium on that. I don’t know. I don’t have confidence that that’s a solution. It feels to me like it will go to a quick knock don’t warrant something that could be equally as dangerous. Do you have an opinion on that? Yeah. No, no, I’m stressing you out?
Tracey Meares 06:19
No, you’re not stressing me out. It. I’m trying to because we actually have time here, you and I do, you know, in contrast to often the situations in which I have these conversations where I have to try to figure out, okay, how can I get an important point, convey it in five minutes, because that’s what I get. And that’s what someone’s going to all the time, they’re going to have to listen to what I have to say. So, you know, I do have an opinion on the no knock warrant. But I can tell you, and I’ll tell you what, I think in a minute. But it’s precisely this issue Chanda that an incident happens, we want to do something about the dynamics that led to the incident. So, we’re, we’re right there. It’s not that different from violence, you know, what I’m going to call private violence, private in the sense that it’s not involving an officer, you know, it’s just, just interpersonal violence between individuals, often in race class, subjugated communities and incident happens, and we’re like, okay, we’re going to, you know, we’re going to react, we’re going to do something about that. And there are things actually, that we can do about that situation. Absolutely. So too, there are things we can do right now, about the no knock warrant situation. Absolutely. But once we step back, if we’re going to address police violence, and we’re going to address violence among individuals, and think about both of these problems as just at its most general level as safety, deprivation, right, the way you would address that is not to, you know, take any individual incident and respond to it. I mean, you know, this is kind of an old, tired analogy, but it’s, it’s like, it would be as if all of our medicine was people being treated in the emergency room. Nobody thinks that that’s the right way to do it. Nobody, I at least I hope no one does. Right, you know, some of the things that we, you know, the more sophisticated things that we do aren’t emergency room strategies, they’re like having a specialist having a specialist for everything, you know, having an endocrinologist and, you know, having an orthopedic surgeon, which is kind of a thing you can do, sort of, you know, I think that might be one way to think about the more particular problems having someone who’s very specialized, focusing on how to design a system of warrants for searches so that they are done better. Yeah, we could, we could do that too. But the really ideal way, if we’re still continuing with this public health analogy, is to be much more general and much more preventive. Keep taking it back. Right, you know, what would, you know, a system of preventing violence, you know, addressing the fact that so many people experience safety deprivation. What would look like if we address that as just the way we address wellness, of which your general practitioner is a part but only a part. You know, you go to the dentist twice a year you see your general practitioner, you eat healthy food, and you have access to healthy food and you have good shelter and you exercise and you do all of those things, right, that we don’t have a way of thinking about that systematically. On the safety side, we really don’t. And it’s hard to get us to have those kinds of conversations, when we’re lurching from, you know, situation to situation, whether the situation is Derek Chauvin, killing George Floyd or another situation of a no knock warrant. So, to answer your question, specifically, yeah, I think it’s fairly likely that if you ban that there, you know that the response in some cases is going to be well, they’ll knock first, right? And they’ll still do it. And until there’s serious attention paid, you know, like, by all of the relevant actors, so, you know, you don’t really get a no not warrant when a judge allows that to happen. So maybe the judges, apart from whether it’s a no knock, you know, should actually really be seriously examining when they’re issuing warrants. They don’t really, we know they don’t, here’s an analogy. All right. So, these warrants are Fourth Amendment warrants for which the judge has to find probable cause to believe that the evidence is going to be found at the location. And the way that works is a cop goes to the judge with an affidavit and a warrant. The judge reads it and issues it. But there’s a whole other model for electronic communications on the federal, on the federal side, it’s actually stateside to for wiretaps. And if you look at the wiretap model, it is much more stringent, much more stringent than a regular search warrant. You go to a judge, it’s time limited. They, there are certain notice provisions you have to give to the person who’s subject to the warrant. There’s actual supervisory requirements. It’s very, very different, actually, from a regular Fourth Amendment or like, you know, whether and when we’re going to actually have, you know, those kinds of, you know, the policy wonky, wonky discussions about the kinds of warrants that are at issue here, you know, I don’t know, but that’s the kind of that’s, that’s what it would take, I think.
Chanda Smith Baker 12:37
And Tracey, who would who would lead that type of conversation? Who’s responsible for that?
Tracey Meares 12:41
Well, I mean, I think the people who are demanding justice and accountability could be part of it. But that gets back to where we were talking at the front end about what people know to ask for and what they understand. And also, that thing that I just talked about, is a kind of medium term fix of the kind of policing that we have now. And so people understandably don’t want to pay, you know, they don’t want to exert all of their effort and attention and energy on that they would rather understandably exert their energy and attention on the longer term justice project, which makes good sense, you know, that the thing that I was talking about before the this, what it would look like to have a state system devoted to really addressing safety concerns that people have, you know, what that would look like, you know, that’s the police transformation conversation. What I think many people are getting at when they’re talking about defund the police. Right. What I think I mean, or even what some people are getting at when they’re talking about abolishing the police, to my mind, what they often mean are they’re talking about abolishing the policing service as we know it. I don’t think but maybe some people believe this, that they believe that the state should not be involved at all, in the project of addressing safety deprivation of citizens. I know, I don’t believe that I don’t believe that the state should not be involved in that state has an obligation to address safety deprivation. The question is the form that the state takes to address it.
Chanda Smith Baker 14:34
Yeah. Can you see a future with no police?
Tracey Meares 14:36
Can I see a future with no police’s we know them? Absolutely. Sure. Yeah. Well, when you say can I? Like, are you asking me to make a prediction? Are you asking me to imagine what that state form could look like?
Chanda Smith Baker 14:51
I mean, maybe both. Like, I mean, Tracey, I honestly have a hard time like, envisioning it right. And I think that’s been really conflicting. For me, because I both see sort of the rise of crime, right we sit here yesterday in our community we buried you know, Dee Hill, one of our football players was senseless act of crime. He was a, you know, a great child doing what he needed to do and someone randomly murdered him. And there are senseless acts of violence, right? People don’t feel safe in their community. And we’re seeing the rise of gun violence and violent acts, and carjackings, and there are people that are living in fear as a result of that, while we’re talking about reduction and scope of what police are responsible for. And I think those things are coming in conflict for many people at a time where we’re violent crime are on the rise. And so, it’s difficult for me in this context to see it, although I can see the reimagining, right, I want to see the end of what has happened, right? Black men dying, people dying, that should not die with, you know, their interactions, the policing, the disrespectful interactions, the racist sort of interactions, the warrior mentality, like, I see all those things gone. But I just can’t envision, and I just can’t I don’t know if it’s, if I just have a block in that, or what.
Tracey Meares 16:28
I think the first step is trying to imagine the possibility that the state could respond in some other way to violence. That does not entail only exclusively armed emergency first responders. And notice I said respond, because again, right, we’re talking about a certain set of incidents, and then there’s going to be a response to that incident. And then there’s a question of, well, what can we do to make sure that that doesn’t happen? What are all the things? And I think, once you start thinking about that, what are all the things that we can do to make sure that that just doesn’t happen in the first place? It’s pretty easy to imagine a whole bunch of state responses that don’t entail exclusively armed first responders, right? Like, you know, and your community foundation, I’m sure funds, lots of community organizations and investments that Pat Sharkey, the sociologist has shown are critical, actually, and to preventing violent incidents, and actually do so more effectively and at greater scale than simply armed emergency first responders. Okay, so once you get to that point, then you say, okay, well, if we want to do that at scale, then you need resources. And you understand that the resources involved in doing that can’t simply be provided by the community itself. That’s why I’m always saying like, the state has to be involved. There’s no world in which the community itself can do it. And I’m including your foundation. Community, you don’t have enough resources. Yeah. And then I would make a normative argument. But you shouldn’t have to, because part of the reason why these spaces exist in the way that they are such that the violence takes place in the first place, is because of years, decades of disinvestment, which my colleague, Elizabeth Hinton shows so brilliantly in her book America on fire. Right. All of the witchy details the up the uprisings after that the Kerner Commission detailed were about people in race class after gated community saying, okay, it’s 1968, we, you know, when are we actually going to get the community investments that we were promised? Right? What are we going to get that? And that’s over 50 years ago, now, and they still haven’t gotten the investments. And the investments that have happened have been in a lot of the state investments anyway, have been in armed emergency first responders, not exclusively. But disproportionately, which is why she argues in her first book, you know, the war on poverty turned into the war on crime. And no, I’m not. This is not a I’m not making a root causes argument. Here. You know, I’m talking about what we can expect from relative investments. And you know what Vesla Weaver and, and Joe Soss call, um, you know, the right arm of the state, you know, rather than the left arm on the one hand, and lack of investments and all of these other things. So, there’s also, you know, there’s a, there’s a catch up game that is also entailed here. Right?
Chanda Smith Baker 20:25
For the listeners that have concern and interest in seeing policing change, or maybe not change, I don’t know, but what might be important for them to understand about the history of policing in America? I mean, sometimes we start with where we entered the conversation, and there’s a long history and legacy in terms of the interaction and policing, particularly in communities, communities of color.
Tracey Meares 20:53
Yeah, I mean, you know, a couple points, just building on what I was just talking about, there’s a long history of police involvement in the denial of access of many people, and in particular, in this country, black people and access to their rights as citizens, you know, whether we’re talking about voting, whether we’re talking about access to property, right, you know, their ability to actually buy property that they could afford, in certain places, you know, their access to the, their right to entire schools. I mean, all of all of these things, right. And it’s, and people are, are familiar, I think, with the ways in which private individuals, prevented people of color, you know, whether we’re talking about black people, or brown people, and, you know, I think, importantly, in your area, native peoples have access to all kinds of, of these, what we’re going to call civic goods, people are used to, you know, we see the picture of, you know, that the very poignant picture of, of young black women attempting to desegregate schools, and that, you know, the picture of the, you know, white people, white women, you know, yelling and screaming at them. But important to understand that in, in many places, police played a role in supporting those people and blocking the access of people of color to these goods. Right. And that’s, that’s an important part of the history. It’s also an important part of the history that, that when certain groups had, were victimized by other individuals, and they went to police and so on for help, you know, they didn’t get any help. In particular, when they were victimized by, you know, by white people. So, you know, there’s that piece of the of the safety deprivation, too. And so, you know, that side of the history, supports the calls that some people have to say, well, if I don’t feel safe, I need to call the police. You know, and the police should respond, which, of course, they should, if you have been victimized, and, you know, homicide should be cleared and, you know, investigation should be undertaken. Absolutely that that is important to do. But I’m trying to make a bigger argument about just what the state’s obligation is. It’s not just about what the police do or don’t do, when the state makes proper investments, then people don’t have to rely exclusively on this particular service that that the state seems to only offer.
Chanda Smith Baker 24:03
You could argue whether or not people rely on it or have relied on it to begin with. But certainly there’s a response. Right. There’s a police response into community. Yes. Right. Because we both know people that have not called police when they were needed, because we’re afraid whether or not it was around deportation, or whether or not they had someone in their home that was having a mental crisis. And they ended up not calling because they were afraid. And so it has been a challenging sort of history on both sides.
Tracey Meares 24:33
Right. Yeah. And they haven’t called because they were afraid or they haven’t called because when they call them the past, they just didn’t show up. That Well, there’s that right. So, if they didn’t show up, then why should I call now? So they’re not showing up when I need you. And then at the same time, when I’m out on the street, just, you know, minding my own business, you’re bothering me about some BS.
Chanda Smith Baker 25:04
Or when someone broke in my house, you weren’t there. But you certainly can like pick on me. Right?
Tracey Meares 25:09
That kind of juxtaposition is really powerful. And, you know, it’s interesting, like I said, we keep talking about police. And it doesn’t actually occur to people for, again, for understandable reasons to say to the mayor, will, you know, if I’m not feeling safe right now? Um, you know, the answer is, well, the police should come rather than I’m not feeling safe. And this city in California has a whole office of community based public safety, violence reduction strategies, right. Where’s that?
Chanda Smith Baker 25:47
And I think policing is an area of complete interest right now in our city. But I have often thought about the push around policing here in our city, right and response and that a lot of the activation has been around the Minneapolis Police Department in the city of Minneapolis right under the mayor. And I’m thinking but so many of the services around public safety actually don’t sit in either one of those places. And so, I don’t understand comprehensive safety plan, why we’re not broadening the conversation to the other actors, including the nonprofit sector, the whole ecosystem of safety, and to plan it out, because there’s no amount of the city budget that can get us to what I think we’re actually trying to respond to, we are actually in complete agreement.
Tracey Meares 26:37
Yes, you were the person who taught me this, about your particular setup. It’s such a wonderful example. Right? Where people would say, we think there should be more mental health services in the city. And we think that the police budget should be reduced so that we can have more mental health services. And if I get this, right, you told me but wait a minute, that’s actually provided at the county level, I don’t even know how the county is funded in Minneapolis, in contrast to the city, but I do know that their budgets are different, their tax structures are different. And it’s not possible, right? To just reduce a city’s budget and give it to the county like, it just doesn’t work that way. Right? And so then, you know, some people’s response might be well, okay, let’s just reduce the city’s police budget, and start mental health at the city. But when you think about it, well, why would you do that? And do you know how much it actually costs to establish this, and you know, these people who do this work, are, you know, our state workers who you know, get paid a very decent salary and have pensions and so on, like, you are talking about an immense, a pretty well, maybe not immense, but a very substantial amount of money. So, this is the kind of thing that I was talking about, at the front end Chanda, where it’s like, a lot of the details of the, of the infrastructure and the policy are kind of beyond the Ken, you know, the ordinary person who’s interested in this problem, who’s fired up about this problem, these details are kind of, they’re certainly wonky. On to a lot of people are kind of boring. But they’re so important. Like, you know, you know, the idea that you would sit people down and say, Look, if we’re going to make headway on this, you need to understand city budgets, need to understand county budgets, you actually need to, you know, read the Minneapolis, not the Minneapolis, you need to read the Minnesota State Constitution, so that you actually understand all of the various departments of state so that you understand who has what money when I mean, it’s, I have a colleague who teaches this at the law school, state and local government is incredibly complex and hard. And then you overlay on that all of that federal constitutional law, because that matters, too, right? Because this is ultimately kind of a federalism problem. There’s a lot of the resources that the state gets they get from the federal government to this is hard stuff.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:25
It is hard stuff. You were on President Obama’s Task Force for 21st century policing. Yes. Was that effective?
Tracey Meares 29:35
Here’s what I can say. We had a few goals, one of which was to come up with a set of reforms that were low hanging, that we felt any policing agency could do that at a minimum would make what the police service as it exists today, less harmful and more accountable. I think I think those recommendations were consistent with that I think any city that adopted those recommendations actually really did adopt would move forward in that project. And I think we also thought that our first pillar that focused on legitimacy and trust, that was kind of the organizing principle was the basis for more fulsome change. Because to my mind, you know, it didn’t require to think about the trust and legitimacy piece of it didn’t require that the policing service exists exactly the way it does now, and then you just have more trust in it is that if you understand that, that’s your goal, then how the policing service carries out its tasks, even how its organized, would have to be fundamentally different if it’s going to meet the communities that they serve and the way that they need to be served in order to trust right?
Chanda Smith Baker 31:01
Well, I mean, it wasn’t really, I mean, it’s not really a completely fair question the way that I asked it. But I mean, I think it was effective in the sense that I think it elevated the issue that more trusting to be built in something needed to change. It certainly made it made many of us that were not paying attention to pay attention differently to issues of policing and I think that was extremely effective.
Tracey Meares 31:22
Yeah. But you know, in terms of, was it effective? I mean, remember, we do it. And then two years later, Donald Trump is president for four years. Right? Right, in a world in which if real transformation is going to take place, remember, we were just having this whole conversation about budgeting and so on, you need real resources, you need serious technical assistance. That didn’t happen in those four years at all, in fact, quite the contrary, opposite, serious retrenchment. So, if anything did happen on those recommendations, they happened piecemeal city to city in certain states, not others, with only the resources that those states happen to have, because the federal government wasn’t giving any resources for that kind of, for that kind of change. And also, the idea that we were gonna, like, you know, turn the aircraft carrier around in two years is just like, you know, have you seen Public Schools lately? You know?
Chanda Smith Baker 32:32
I mean, this is a super important point, though, because there’s a lot of urgency that is sitting in our city, and across our state and across many states that are saying we can’t lose any more lives, we need to make change right now. And it goes back to the point of sort of these, I don’t quite want to call them knee jerk, but like these very rapid responses, and pressure, and politicians are moving very quickly. And it’s not, in fact, building additional trust or confidence in the system. I actually think it’s eroding it.
Tracey Meares 33:06
Of course, when something major like that happens, there is a demand for a response, we’re back in the emergency room. But it’s, it’s interesting to meet the emergency room with what you stated before Chanda, which is, we can’t lose another person. Right? If you went to the emergency room, and you told an emergency room doctor, you know, do what you can to save this life, that’s right here in front of you. But we can’t lose another person, the emergency room doctor would look at you I’m like, wait, what? You know/ All I can do is do the thing that’s in front of me. My job is actually not to go out there. And make sure that we don’t lose another person. That’s, that’s an entirely different project. Right. And I think if what people need to understand while they are reacting, understandably, to these tragic incidents is that you got to do what you can in the moment. But you have to be working at like five different levels at one time. You have to, I think conversations that don’t allow the possibility of working at five different levels, right for addressing the emergency, trying to do something that’s, you know, two steps in front of the emergency, you know, coming up with a specialized strategy to make whatever we’re doing that’s creating the emergency, less harmful, while also at the same time trying to rebuild the system, the plane while we’re flying it. If you can’t do all of that at one time, then right we’re gonna fail. I think we can do it all at one time, I think we have to. But that is the way you have to think about it.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:07
Yeah, one of the other questions, so not more, as we’ve talked about, the other one is around early intervention around and police accountability, right police accountability and sort of the early warning signs of officers. Right. So, we know that it’s not all officers, I just want to say it, you know, I have family members that are police officers, I’ve said that before on this podcast, I actually worry quite a bit about them. And it probably goes to my earlier point and feeling conflicted, because I have people that I love on the force, and I have people that aren’t family that are on the force that I have a great deal of respect for. But is there any data or anything notable that we should understand in terms of police accountability?
Tracey Meares 35:48
Yeah, I’ll say two things. One, about early warning, and then one about when you say accountability, right. So, there’s some data showing that early warning systems can be helpful. But of course, almost all of those systems are operating with a group of people who are in the job, as they are right now trained as they are right now selected in whatever way they are, right now, you know, being tipped off, having their supervisors being tipped off the things that they’re doing. Usually around, you know, a lot of the tip offs are really centered in officer safety and wellness questions, right, like, you know, is this person involved in a domestic violence incident, you know, a lot of early warning around drinking, and, and so on right there, there are things that we can do. But even that is focusing on an individual using that individual’s behavior, and trying to address the individual’s issue without addressing the context in which that individual sits that often is contributing to whatever the issue that we have, right? Like, if you wanted to be serious, about much more serious about early warning, you would address it in recruitment, and you would have fundamentally different recruitment mechanisms. So I’m actually a commissioner on the New Haven board of police commissioners. And right now, we are trying to address how we evaluate new officers, we have a psychological, a Connecticut post requires that each potential applicant undergo a psychological evaluation. And the tests that the psychologist use, primarily, if you look at the instruments are looking at, like whether the person is psychotic, literally, I mean, you look at the questions, and then the psychologist will give us some evaluation of like, whether or not the person can be a good officer. In terms of their ability to follow orders, you’re just like, Okay, so right there, you are, conceiving of the kind of officer that actually I don’t think is appropriate for our agency, if you match up our mission statement, because New Haven has a mission statement that expects people to be community oriented, expects them to be able to deal with diverse populations and so on, you know, my question to the psychologist will be, well, what instruments are you using to detect that person’s ability to have those kinds of skills? Because I don’t see it? You know, are you asking them to undergo an implicit bias assessment test? Are you asking them to undergo a social dominance orientation test, these are validated instruments in social psychology, that could be used, right? But when you’re talking about early warning, you’re talking about a group of people that have already passed a certain set of tests that aren’t even necessarily the best test to identify the group of people that you want.
Chanda Smith Baker 39:00
That’s fair. And I think we have the same system here. And as a matter of fact, I think they only have to undergo that testing upon hiring. And they don’t have to do it again, unless they’re involved with a critical incident, which is also problematic.
Tracey Meares 39:13
Right? Now, in our case, we just rewrote all of our things to make that they have to actually undergo an assessment every 18 months. So, you know, there are things that we can do. But again, those assessments wouldn’t screen people out. It wouldn’t be sort of a year later, oh, wait, we messed up, you don’t have a job. It would be more consistent with your early warning system. So that’s, you know, the first piece of it one answer. The short form of an answer would be to say, Well, if we really cared about early warning systems, we would do it early to make sure that, you know, those people don’t ever get into the job and that we’re actually screening in a different set of people with the kinds of skills that We need to actually interact with the populations in question. Now your question about accountability. And for a lot of people accountability has to do with what we started our conversation with at the outset of the podcast. Accountability, when you’ve done something wrong, is there like a judicial, something like a judicial assessment about blaming the person, you know about in the criminal context, they are criminally adjudicated, or in the employment context, they lose their job, or they’re suspended, or something like that. But there’s a different way of thinking about accountability, that’s more continuous and ongoing. You know, it’s the kind of accountability you have in the day to day with a supervisor who actually pays attention to what you’re doing on a day to day and making sure that if you do a bad job, that you get appropriate training, there’s an accountability that is about constant training, to assure that you know, how to do your job that you’re expert in what you need to do, you know, that if you’re going to be faced with a new task, that you have the right training, and the opportunity to practice it before you go out and interact with people, you can call that a form of accountability too right?
Chanda Smith Baker 41:23
Body cam, there’s all this footage of how people are interacting. And my question has been, are you using it as a training opportunity, right? Because you can actually go and look, when there’s a complaint and say, okay, well, maybe it doesn’t come to this level. But what about this interaction could have been different.
Tracey Meares 41:42
Correct and you don’t even have to wait for the complaint with all them. There should be constant auditing, there should be like, once a week, we’re gonna take a snippet of somebody’s body camera, and we’re all gonna sit around, and we’re gonna assess whether that was good, what was good about it, what was bad about it, like, you know, constant learning, I think, is also a form of accountability. But people aren’t used to really thinking about accountability in that way. It’s often very retrospective, incident focused, rather than forward looking, you know, constant course correction, I will say, and this might be controversial, but, you know, who does a pretty decent job of the of the kind of accountability that was talking about with the concentrating and so on, the military. Military is pretty good at that. Deeply ironic ways. You know, there. There, there’s a sense in which the policing service as we know it today could be improved by, by actually, I’m being intentionally provocative right now. But yeah, by being militarized, right.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:01
Yeah. Okay. So, I hear you and I feel like I’ve read even that some of the officers that have military backgrounds tend to do better in response and feel like I’ve read that somewhere.
Tracey Meares 43:12
I don’t know if that’s true. And in making this argument about, you know, learning from the way the military does it, I actually don’t mean to necessarily be saying we should be giving people extra points who are in the military, it’s just that the military a particular model of doing it. Now, a lot of that, of course, is about resources. The military has tons of resources to do that. Right. And so, then there’s also a question of, do we want to spend all of our, does the state want to spend all of its resources, training armed first responders to do all of these different jobs? Or does the state need to actually develop different agencies and different individuals to respond to different problems, you know, with forms of expertise, because there’s no reason why it has to be the police that as we know it, engaging in all these responses, I do believe that it needs to be the state, however, or that the state needs to pay for it.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:16
Just in terms of progress, and I’m making an assumption that this is progress. But in terms of action, how about I said that in terms of actions that have been taken? Can you say anything about the number of states that have made legislative changes and whether or not those have been affective?
Tracey Meares 44:33
Okay, let me I’ll try to do this from memory. If you go to the National Council of State Legislatures, there’s a, you can go to that website. And you can actually look at all of the different kinds of legislation that are either pending or passed. So, when I started out at the front end of the of our conversation, I said there have been, you know, 25 states that have had that have passed some number of some different kinds of legislation. The three most popular types, if you will, are legislation around use of force and bans on certain kinds of activities like chokeholds and neck restraints, which clearly follows from the incident in your state. Yeah, a bunch of states have passed legislation about the duty to intervene, often in connection with the use of force again, because of the failure of the officers who are now on trial. A third, very prominent issue around legislation is about decertification. So that if you have engaged in some kind of particularly egregious behavior are separated from the agency that you’re working with. They want to decertify them and then make sure that other jurisdictions know that you’ve been decertified. And then there’s legislation that prevents states from recertifying somebody who’s been decertified, because there’s this problem called the wandering officer where people are fired. But they’re not decertified, and then just go to another jurisdiction and get hired. And in some places, this is happening again.
Chanda Smith Baker 46:22
And these behaviors are, you know, misconduct. Does it include lying? and you know, it includes those types of behaviors.
Tracey Meares 46:28
Yep. And it includes even things like being under investigation for misconduct and resigning in the middle of the investigation so that there’s no finding against you. But then you can like at least in Connecticut, you can be certified for that. So roughly about 25 states, as I said before, northeast, mostly some around the Great Lakes. There was pending legislation in Ohio and Michigan that didn’t get passed. Yall passed Minnesota passed legislation. There’s some in the West, basically nothing in the South and in those middle states in the West. Now, then you asked about whether it’s effective? Well, in a lot of cases, the legislation was just passed. So, it depends on what we’re talking about in terms of effective like, is it making a difference in terms of incidents of use of force? Or are people actually intervening more? You know, are we seeing some impact on the decertification? I think, in large part right now, it’s too early to tell. But one thing is really important here, which is if you look at some of this legislation, it doesn’t necessarily build in an infrastructure, as we were discussing before, to even assess the possibility of effectiveness. So if the agencies who are that are subject to the new use of force legislation, are not required to very explicitly document all of their uses of force and then report it to some central agency in the state, then there would be no real possibility of something that state agency, whatever the state agency is auditing that municipal agency to see whether and how their use of force practices have changed, right. I mean, you know, one really big issue we have, in assessing the extent to which there has been any change in policing practices is that we live in a data free zone.
Chanda Smith Baker 48:34
Say more about that, because, yeah say just a little bit about that.
Tracey Meares 48:38
Yeah, so we live in a data free zone. So like, when people talk about police killing people, and the numbers of those deaths, and so on, you know, the data source that folks commonly refer to, is our journalistic databases, you know, people used to look at after Michael Brown was killed, you know, they would go to the Washington Post there, you know, these different organizations that collect information, basically, based on combing through public accounts, in newspapers. That is not the same as having a set of official statistics about these in the same way that we have actually have official statistics about homicide.
Chanda Smith Baker 49:21
You know, in our state, we don’t collect data on officers that have been involved in deadly incidents, critical incidents.
Tracey Meares 49:28
It’s not. So, if it’s not collected, and it’s certainly not collected at the state level after there have been these legislative changes. How would it be possible to assess seriously, seriously assess whether these legislative changes have been effective? And then the sad thing is, which brings us back to where we started. People will know that there have been these legislative changes. And then there’s another police killing, you know, in a context in which the officer has engaged in some strategy that the news has just publicized as prohibited. And so, people are like, What the hell? You know, how is this possible that if it’s banned, that it still happens.
Chanda Smith Baker 50:17
I mean, for some of us, for some folks, that’s what they said, and for some other people have felt predictable, because we’ve been taught a lot of things and it shows back up. And I think the unfortunate thing is that there’s many of us that are working to do and make change, and we’re undermining our own progress here. And I think it goes to your point of the layers that’s required, right, that we can’t take these steps forward and 20 steps backwards. And, you know, you have to be able to inspect what you expect. You can’t just say it and declare it publicly and not have any built-in accountabilities around, is it happening or not?
Tracey Meares 50:59
It’s not enough to just ban something, you have to build an infrastructure to detect what you banned. Assess what you’ve banned, and then build an infrastructure to respond to those bans. And by and large, what we see in the legislation is only step one, the other stuff is hard.
Chanda Smith Baker 51:22
It is hard, and the other stuff is in public. And it’s not.
Tracey Meares 51:26
It’s wonky. People think it’s boring, wonky. People think it’s boring. But it’s actually one of the most important things to have happen, building the infrastructure, if you actually care about making a difference.
Chanda Smith Baker 51:41
I’m glad to see you smiling in the midst of all of this, do you feel hopeful about our future around public safety?
Tracey Meares 51:50
I think there’s been a lot of changes. I’m not as fast as a lot of people want not as fast as I want. But you know, when I look at today, compared to five, six years ago, given that the intervening period of four years was, you know, the wilderness, I think it’s hard not to be somewhat optimistic. I’m not nearly as you know, I, I wish the current administration was further along than it is right now. But, you know, I try to give some grace because of COVID. It’s a lot.
Chanda Smith Baker 52:29
It is a lot. And I think, you know, sometimes we feel like if it’s not on the news or on social media, it’s not happening. Right. And I think it’s important for people to hear you say, because you are so critical in this space, and your expertise is limited, you know, across this country, that you see it improving. And, you know, just because I don’t know, everything doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. And yet we know more needs to happen. And so, I’m I am thrilled to hear you say that because it could feel pretty daunting here in Minnesota.
Tracey Meares 53:07
Yeah. Well, and for good reason, because all of these incidents keep happening. But you know, I guess it’s also the case to say, just because these horribly tragic, awful, unwarranted incidents occur also doesn’t mean that we aren’t making progress, because I think we are certainly nationally. I can’t speak to what’s happening on the ground in Minneapolis. I appreciate you. Me too, and I can’t wait to see you in April.
Souphak Kienitz 53:37
That’s Tracey Mears and our host Chanda Smith Baker. If you love what you hear, please leave us a review. Wherever you get your podcast. Thank you to Sarah Gillund, John Cuoco, and Darlynn Benjamin. This is Souphak Kienitz. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you soonClose Transcript -
Tracey L. Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and a Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. Before joining the faculty at Yale, she was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School from 1995 to 2007, serving as Max Pam Professor and Director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice. She was the first African American woman to be granted tenure at both law schools.
Tracey is a nationally recognized expert on policing in urban communities. Her research focuses on understanding how members of the public think about their relationship(s) with legal authorities such as police, prosecutors, and judges. She teaches courses on criminal procedure, criminal law, and policy. She has worked extensively with the federal government having served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Law and Justice, a National Research Council standing committee, and the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs Science Advisory Board.
In April 2019, Tracey was elected as a member to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In December 2014, President Obama named her 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.