"Policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed." In the latest episode of A Political and Literary Podcast, Vesla Weaver talks to Tracey Meares about policing as a public good in a time of police brutality. Drawing from Meares's recent essay in our new print issue, The President's House Is Empty, they articulate an emancipatory vision for policing that is not predicated on racism, but is instead a public good for all. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.
Read the essay under discussion here.
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Vesla Weaver: It’s good to be conversing with a longtime friend, Tracey Meares, a colleague who runs the Justice Collaboratory at Yale, where she is a law professor. And she has recently written a piece for Boston Review where she promotes the really interesting argument that policing as we know it “must be abolished before it can be transformed.” And you, throughout the piece, reimagine policing as a fundamental public good, much in the way that sidewalks, public schools, and clean water are public goods, but one that has gone bad—it’s neither public nor good—and where the costs of it being neither public nor good have been borne by some communities. So, I wanted to start out by asking you how you came to this idea—is this something that had animated your thoughts before the policing movement?
Tracey Meares: This idea of policing as a public good is something I’ve been thinking about for probably over a decade, and it came out of my early work in looking at the ways in which drug law enforcement was carried out in the ‘90s, when I first became a law professor. A lot of the legal scholarship in that area at the time was focused either on what prosecutors were doing, or on what victims were doing, but didn’t really discuss very much what lawyers would call “third party others”—the community.
Does policing as we know it have to be abolished before it can be transformed?
And I wrote a piece called “Social Organization and Drug Law Enforcement,” and at the time, Randall Kennedy had written this piece that was very controversial about whether members of the African-American community could support the crack cocaine disparity at the federal level. He pointed to support by members of the Congressional Black Caucus for the law, and some very notable African-American law enforcers like Eric Holder, who was U.S. Attorney at the time. But nobody really looked at what folks on the ground were thinking about this, so that was my starting point. I brought sociology to bear on the legal question of how neighborhoods were organized. And what I found was that people didn’t like the “get tough” approach to law enforcement. But they also didn’t like what I would call the “standard left” argument, which is that people don’t want police. They wanted law enforcement, but they wanted it to work.
So, what would it mean to have law enforcement that works for people in disadvantaged communities that face a lot of hurdles to getting their goals and projects done? And that’s a standard question, actually, for thinking about public goods. I actually started saying at that time: “Policing is no different from clean water, good street lighting, so on, and you wouldn’t ask people to give that up, just because it’s poorly done. The argument is not getting rid of it, it’s fixing it so it works in their favor.
VW: As I’m listening to you speak, I was thinking: the community is still very absent. They’re absent from the reform debates, they’re absent from many signature policing initiatives, they’re absent often—as you and I have talked about a lot, in the Portals Project we’re doing—from media accounts. You even say, toward the end of your piece, that one of the things that has to happen is attention to the “co-production of public security with communities,” and I wanted to see if you could go into that a little bit. What does that look like in practice? What does that mean? People will throw around the idea of community policing, they’ll throw around the idea of reinvestment in the community—we’ve got to have community members on board, we’ve got to have police accountable to the community—but in a decade working in criminal justice, I’ve seen precious few models where the co-production is truly in evidence. So, what does that look like to you? You note two examples at the end of your piece of L.A. and Seattle—are there others? Where should we move to re-enlist the community in the co-production of justice and security?
TM: It’s an incredibly important question, and I’m going to begin by punting a little bit—you said in a decade of working on it, you haven’t seen many models. I’ve been doing this for two decades, and I’m not sure how many more models I’ve seen. I think it’s really hard, because it hasn’t been done.
That’s not to say I don’t know what goals we should be trying to achieve. In order to have the co-production of justice, I do believe pretty firmly in some ideas coming out of social psychology about what it takes for people to find either their government or law or legal authorities legitimate. So here I’m referring to theories in social psychology of procedural justice and legitimacy. We know the kinds of things people care about in order to come to conclusions about what’s there. They want to have participation and they want to have voice, and that coincides with some of your own work on civic engagement. So I think when you have some of those goals in mind, it tells you something about what it can’t look like, but I think it also gives you some ideas of what it could look like, which is why I pointed to Los Angeles and Seattle, at least in the policing context.
The failures of policing are linked with those of other public goods.
I think one thing that’s incredibly difficult here is that for this to be fully realized, we have to understand that the criminal justice system doesn’t exist by itself. And notice I said “system.” We’re just talking about policing. Policing is just one component of the system, and the many components of criminal justice also exist in the space where other public goods are provided. And until we’re serious about allowing the entire community to play a role in articulating the goals and projects of civic governance as a general matter, then it’s really hard to say, “this is what it’s going to look like in policing.” Chicago is a perfect example. People talk about how many problems the Chicago Police Department has—which it does—but when they do that, they don’t talk about the fact that Illinois didn’t have a budget for three years. And the schools were about to close, and we can go on and on, and to operate as if those things are separate and apart from each other is just a mistake.
VW: And that’s a harder project. I’ve had this conversation so many times, where people will have a “Kumbaya” moment, and they’ll say, “Look, we’re beginning to decarcerate—prison rates are falling for the first time in over three decades.” And they’ll celebrate all the reforms that are taking place across the state and across the localities. And I keep coming back to this idea: that until we fix other state failures—lead-filled water, disinvestment in communities, no jobs—these problems are going to be ready to rear their heads in a decade. So, I completely agree with you trying to get us to see that this isn’t just about policing failures, but is linked up with other public goods.
One of the things that really struck me in your piece is that you really underscore and emphasize how communities see the police, and how often it’s at odds with the mission of police as a public good. You say they don’t trust the police, and with good reason. In our Portals Project and in our conversations we’re embarking on in five different cities, so often people will say, “It’s not a public good. They’re not here to serve and protect. They’re here to be tax-collectors for the city. They’re here as a profit center. It’s a system of regressive taxation targeted at our neighborhoods.” They speak of being fleeced, of how profit loves disorder. They talk about police living large in the suburbs while their resources are depleted. One person said: “So are you all really here to serve and protect your people, or are you here to collect a dime for the city and the government? Because y’all tax collectors. Y’all really just trying to be able to collect money for the city.” How do we revise that? How do we end that practice and that perception that’s coming from somewhere?
TM: I think those are two very different questions, as I’m sure you know. I actually think that the strategies that we can undertake to change the practice are a lot easier—at least in some jurisdictions—than the perception. The perception is often disengaged from the reality of the practice. For example, we don’t have a portal in New York, but I wouldn’t be surprised if residents of New York had that perception about the ways in which policing was about filling the coffers of the city, when, if you look at the balance sheet, it’s pretty hard to see how all of the overtime that it takes to do stop-and-frisk is actually profit-inducing. Whereas in other cities, that kind of other policing activity clearly goes to the bottom line.
What does the co-production of public security look like in practice?
What people understand to be happening and what the reality is are two very different things. And I think what that means is, we have to both attack the reality of these practices, especially when they’re unlawful and unconstitutional, but also understand that the strategy we undertake to change perception actually might be very different from changing the strategy. They’re separate. So I would go back to the ideas that I was talking about before. If you’re not in the process of doing it—engaging the community, giving them voice—you’re not going to change the perception. The somewhat scary part about the theories that I espouse is, because perception is sometimes disengaged from what people are actually doing, you could imagine a world in which you change someone’s perception without changing the practice.
VW: Do you think that the police—I’m saying “the police,” but really what I’m saying is seventeen thousand different agencies—do you think there’s a willingness to have the conversation that the community has to be involved? You start the piece off by talking about MASK, this organization in Chicago that you say has sought to prove that alternative methods of crime reduction can be more effective than policing. In my own work, I’ve often been fascinated by local grassroots—very local yokel, very under-resourced—anti-crime campaigns, and other initiatives: community bail funds, community dispute resolutions, community anti-gang initiatives—and how it seems there’s not a lot of data to say whether they’re more or less effective than your typical criminal justice agencies. Yet there’s something really appealing about them, either because they enhance civic power of deeply under-resourced, disinvested communities, or just because it’s them taking agency and often understanding the problem, because they live it every day, because they’re right up close to it, because they have front-row seats to both over-policing and to predatory violence. Why is it that so often, we discount their perspectives, we’re suspicious that they would have any solutions to offer? Do you think that conversation is ready to happen? Do you think that, in the next five years or so, we’ll see a genuine turn to communities as being the producers of justice and safety?
TM: I think there already has been a turn. The question is whether it’s enough of a turn. From where I sit, it’s interesting that you said “the police.” When I said, in my piece, “the police need to be abolished,” of course, there are some agencies doing things very well, and there are aspects of other agencies that also do things well. It’s not as if no one is doing nothing. You’ve got to say that, right? Which is why I think we’re having this conversation. You know, the fact that there was a presidential commission on which I served, the basis of which is about enhancing trust and legitimacy and was not just about crime control and the rhetoric that Jeff Sessions has offered as the current attorney general—it’s meaningful, right? Especially when two of the members of that commission were leading police chiefs. A mutual friend of ours, Dwayne Betts, was just telling me last night that he was walking down the street and literally heard two New Haven police officers say, “In this age of police reform…” and he was like, what? [laughing] Did they actually say those words? And there’s a way of being cynical about that, like, “what do you mean, we haven’t achieved full reform, or we’re not even well on our way”—and I agree. At the same time, the idea that you would have two average cops talking about police reform as they walk down the street is notable. Right? So that’s the first thing to say when we know that the reform conversation that people are having necessarily entails some kind of participation of the community. That was a key part of the 59 recommendations that our task force offered President Obama.
Now your bigger question is, well, what about making the community front and center? How is it that that’s gonna happen, because that needs to happen. And what does that mean? Which goes back to the very first part of our conversation. You know, past dependency is strong, it’s hard to do that, agencies are bureaucratic institutions. And so this is an age-old discussion, I’m sure you guys have had it in political science: it’s about the difference between bureaucratic expertise on one hand, and lay intuition and support on the other. I mean, that’s a decades-long conversation, not having necessarily anything to do with police reform, but obviously relevant to that. And I think the task is, how do you bring the important insights and knowledge—as you pointed out, these people who live this dual frustration of living with crime victimization but also living with overreached government, overreached to address it—how do you bring that into a bureaucracy that is actually necessary to carry this stuff out?
We have to address both the realities and perceptions of policing in America.
I’ve been involved in many conversations about this, especially in Chicago, about asking people in the community about what should the police do, and how should they carry it out, and I’m pretty clear that this might be controversial, but I’m fine with the communities that are affected setting goals. But to think that they actually know how to run an agency? They don’t. Right? And even when you look at your examples, it would be interesting to see how a lot of our evaluations are short-term—even the kinds of policies that agencies enact. It takes bureaucracy and organization and a certain level of expertise to run something and sustain and intervention over time. It just does. And so that really is the trick. I think that’s what’s interesting about watching what Los Angeles and Seattle are doing. Because what they’re doing is making the community bodies central for articulating, “this is what our agency is going to do. These are its priorities, these are its goals and projects.” And the people who are running these agencies are actually the agents of these bodies. Which is the appropriate relationship, right? Not to have the community as agents of the police, that makes no sense.
VW: I wanted to bring the piece into conversation with a contemporary example that’s probably on all of our minds, and that is—one of the things that hit hard about your essay is this idea not just that it’s a public good, but you actually break those two terms apart, and you say, policing should be public, and it should be good. And we’ve run afoul of both of those things. And one of the examples that’s really close at my mind is the example of the woman who was felled by police in Minnesota, and the reaction—even before it happened, I said to myself, “somebody’s going to get fired over this.” And so here you’ve got a string of black community members who have lost their lives, from Philando Castile to Eric Garner, and many, many, many others. And there’s been so little accountability, there’s been one after another after another of either failed indictments or failed convictions. And yet within days—and this is not to take anything from the deep hurt that must have accompanied the loss of her life to her family members—but within days we see accountability. We see the principals getting fired over it. Can you offer some thoughts on that recent example, and how it would jive with the principles in your piece?
TM: Obviously the first thing that comes to mind, in thinking about that particular incident in Minneapolis, is the racial dynamics. And not just that the victim is a white woman—
TM: Right. But that the officer was a man of color—the officer who shot her. I’m not sure about the race of his partner. I’m assuming, this might be wrong, that his partner is white. The reason why I’m mentioning his partner—there was another thing that was notable, and that is, I think within forty-eight hours his personnel record was made publicly available and redacted. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. And not just his personnel record, but also his partner’s. People are focusing on the fact that his personnel record was made public, but I actually read the whole file and saw that his partner’s was too. And, as you already mentioned, the police chief was fired, and the union has been silent. And you know, what is there to say about all of this? Well, I think, after all of these decisions are made, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for there to be a change when—and I did say when—the next incident happens. I mean, lawyers like to focus on something called precedent. This is serious precedent. Now that an officer’s personnel record was made available publicly within forty-eight hours, you can bet it’s going to be difficult for them not to do that again.
VW: Your whole career has been tied to this incredible idea of procedural justice. And what it makes me think is, it’s not just procedural justice in terms of an individual encounter with police, it’s procedural justice on a community or nationwide scale. The communities of Sylville Smith are seeing this, the communities of Eric Garner and Walter Scott are seeing this, and what other information do they have to go on than to interpret that when a brown officer kills an affluent white woman who has enlisted the police for help, this is the kind of justice that’s given, and when our communities are gunned down by police, this is the kind of justice that we get. We don’t get convictions, we certainly don’t get firings, we don’t get resignations, we don’t get leaders admonishing the police, we don’t get silent unions, that kind of thing.
TM: It takes something incredibly extraordinary for there to be a different outcome. And so it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than that it was about race. And there was a conviction in the Walter Scott case. And if you compare that case to this—you know, where you have a man running and being shot in the back—that’s extraordinary. And I actually think there’s a way of looking at this, which is also to say, it has its own aspect of extraordinary. You know, I know that people of color are disproportionately the victims of police killings. I know that’s true. But I am also sure that there’s a disproportionate representation of trans people, of people with mental disabilities and physical disabilities, and so on. So you think about all the relevant communities involved—my guess is, and I haven’t looked at the data collected by places like the Post and the Guardian recently—but she is a unicorn, is my guess. I bet there are very few white women, straight, with no criminal background, so on and so forth. Right? And I think what’s interesting about that, to get back to your community idea, is that if you think about Derrick Bell’s theories of interest convergence, it’s actually hard to see necessarily how this incident will mobilize people to be involved. And yet I do think it’s going to have greater impact—not because it’s necessarily going to mobilize people who are very rarely going to have contact with police, but that she was who she was put in motion some actions on the agency side that are going to be incredibly difficult to walk back.
VW: That’s a good point. And I’d never thought about this until we just had this conversation—you say in the piece that majoritarians such as Bloomberg and Kelly—you’re making the point that there’s two sides of public safety. One side is freedom from state violence, from arbitrary state violence. And the other side, of course, is freedom from interpersonal predatory violence. And you say, “leaders such as Bloomberg and Kelly value freedom from private predation over security from state violence, an unsurprising position given that their social status insulates them from the state’s most intrusive manifestations.” And what’s key about the conversation we just had, about the shooting in Minneapolis by a police officer, is that what we witnessed, collectively as a nation, is the relaxing of that. That actually there are certain demographic groups for whom the value of freedom from private predation coexists with the value of freedom from state violence and oppression. And I think until our nation has that conversation, we’re going to be pretty stuck.
There are demographic groups for whom the value of freedom from private predation coexists with the value of freedom from state violence.
Now, I can’t end the conversation before pushing you at least a little bit. And so, while I was in almost complete agreement with all of the many ideas and interesting concepts and insights in your brief Boston Review piece, at the end, you come down with a gauntlet and say, “If police cannot find a way to change in ways that will better serve the people, then, yes, their footprint should be reduced. But I still think we can do better than that impoverished second best.” Those are great lines, but it immediately made me think, hold on a second, what if this is a “both, and” situation, what if this is a “yes, and” situation? Where we should be finding ways to transform the police in the ways that you articulate in the essay, making them more procedurally just, making them more accountable to the communities they serve—and we should also lessen contact? Contact should be more of a last resort, especially for people who are, you know, sitting on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and selling them without a license. And it makes me think of this idea that I think Jeff Fagan has had, another colleague of ours: this idea of having a more elite, highly trained police force to deal with major infractions, and then to have—and I don’t know if he says this or if I’m just making this up, but I think it’s a compelling example—the equivalent of meter maids to do the rest.
TM: I actually think we’re saying the same thing. Here’s the issue: the problem is, being a police officer in the United States is coincident with carrying a gun. So anytime you’re going to have an interaction with a police officer who can do all these good things, potentially, including—and this is one piece of the essay we haven’t spoken about—but including actually enhance and change our perception of each other as groups, which is key, especially in the era that we live in right now—it’s fraught, right? So if I can’t trust that the police officer who’s going to show up to help me, if I’m at risk of being shot by that person simply because I called for help—that’s a problem. And a lot of the work that I’ve done elsewhere looks at policing models where police don’t carry guns, in the UK, for example. And police here will say, “well, there’s so many guns here”—which is true, which is why another aspect of my work is trying to understand the prevalence of guns and gun regulation and the like. And that is absolutely true, but it is really not the case—and that that’s another big problem that every time the police officer interacts with somebody, that they are at risk of getting shot. And so if the way forward is actually to disarm a bunch of police in order to have them really engage in community policing, I think that’s probably right. That’s probably where we need to go. I haven’t seen this piece that you speak of, but that makes sense to me. It does seem kind of crazy that every time a police officer is in an interaction, they absolutely need their gun. I don’t think that’s true or right, especially when we know it’s so risky.
VW: Well thank you, Tracey, it was such a treat to read your piece.
TM: Thank you.