Law and Order - and Math and Science: Yale Professor Tracey Meares (BSGE 1988) Promotes Procedural Justice


Doug Peterson

Tracey Meares, BSGE 1988.
Tracey Meares, BSGE 1988.

Tracey Meares still remembers the day she was driving through the heart of Chicago with her three young children in the back seat of her van. The kids were creating a ruckus, so she tossed them a box of goldfish crackers to quiet them down.

Big mistake.

“I was multitasking, trying to manage the situation,” recalls Meares, a 1988 ISE alum who is now a law professor at Yale University. But in the process of responding to her three kids—a baby, toddler, and six-year-old—she inadvertently rolled through a stop sign.

Suddenly: flashing lights. She was pulled over by the Chicago police.

“It was really important for me to tell the police officer what happened—to explain my own psychology. But not because I thought I should get out of a ticket,” Meares points out. She says she is like most people and just wanted to be perceived as a law-abiding, good person.

The encounter turned out to be positive, because the police officer allowed her to explain, and he even let her off with a warning.

Today, Meares works on fairness in the criminal justice system, and this incident underscores one of the four key elements of “procedural justice.” The first pillar of procedural justice is the desire to be heard by a police officer or other representatives of the criminal justice system.

“If you ask most people, ‘Would you rather be yelled at and called every kind of name and then not get a ticket, or get a ticket and be treated respectfully, most people will choose the latter,” she says. “They care more about how they’re treated than the outcome.”

Meares’ work on procedural justice with her colleague, Tom R. Tyler, has brought her to the forefront of research and debates about police encounters with the public. She has been a law professor at Yale University since 2007 and is Yale Law’s first African-American woman to receive tenure. She also served on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and she runs Yale’s Justice Collaboratory with Tyler.

But Meares started out as an engineering student back in the 1980s, when ISE was called General Engineering—and this became the foundation for her work in procedural justice.

Meares was born in Champaign and spent her middle school and high school years in Springfield. She came from a family with a rich history in the civil rights movement, because her grandparents were stalwarts of the cause in both Champaign and Springfield.

Her grandmother, Velma Carey, operated an Africana bookstore in Springfield and was one of the plaintiffs in McNeil v. City of Springfield, a 1987 case that changed the city’s form of government from a mayor/commissioner to a mayor/aldermanic system. The commissioner form of government was declared racially discriminatory because it concentrated power in one small part of Springfield.

Her grandmother was also the first African-American woman to work the cosmetics counter at Myers Brothers department store in Springfield; it was a dramatic step for a black woman to demonstrate cosmetics for white customers, Meares says.

Meares’ roots at the University of Illinois run deep. Her mother, father, and youngest sister all have master’s degrees from the University of Illinois, and her middle sister received a B.S. degree from U of I. Her grandfather, C. Lee Carey, received two degrees from Illinois—the first in 1938, when he was one of 12 black students in his entire class, and another in 1952 after the war. African Americans were not allowed to live in dorms in 1938, so he lived in a boarding house for black students operated by his aunt.

Meares had her own taste of racism while growing up in Champaign in the 1970s. When she was in second grade, she recalls, one of the mothers organized a Brownie troop with all of the girls from her class. However, when she showed up for the first meeting, the mother wouldn’t let her into the house. She made Tracey, the only African-American girl in the group, sit on the front steps until her mother could pick her up.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Meares says. “It was completely bizarre, but my mom quickly understood what was happening.”

As it turned out, one of the other mothers organized a separate Brownie troop, and all of the girls in the class switched to it—except for the daughter of the racist mother.

“This was 1975, and I didn’t even know there had once been separate water fountains,” she says. “Few people back then talked about this history.”

Meares says she was “always a math and science kid,” and studies came easy for her in high school. After graduating as valedictorian of her high school class in Springfield, it was back to Champaign-Urbana in 1984, where Meares enrolled in electrical engineering at UIUC. Because Meares didn’t have to study hard in high school, she says engineering came as a shock—especially when she got a C in transistors.

That woke her up, but she also realized electrical engineering wasn’t for her. A friend in her sorority was in General Engineering and that looked interesting, so she made the switch during her sophomore year.

When Meares was in electrical engineering, she had often been the only woman and sometimes the only person of color in class; this was before engineering had a much more international flavor. But when she switched to General Engineering, she was pleasantly surprised to find she was no longer the only person of color in her classes.

During this period, Meares says, she really didn’t have much of a plan for her future. But that began to change when she got three summer internships—two at IBM in Chicago and one at Kodak in Rochester, New York.

“During the summer I was there, Kodak had just lost a major lawsuit against Polaroid over their Instant Print camera,” Meares says. “This was fascinating to me, and I began to think about patent law. It made me realize you could be a science person, but you could also be a lawyer.”

This set the stage for a crossroads decision at the end of her undergraduate years—either law school or medical school.

“I have no regrets about choosing law over medicine,” Meares says. “My sister is a doctor, and I can pretty much play a doctor on TV. And I now have the best job in the world, which is to be a law professor at the best place in the world to do it—Yale Law School.”

Before winding up at Yale, she received her law degree from the University of Chicago in 1991. She then became an antitrust prosecutor and played a role in initiating the landmark price-fixing case against the Archer Daniels Midland company in Decatur, Illinois.

The case was made famous by the bestselling book, The Informant, as well as the major motion picture based on the book and starring Matt Damon. 

“In the movie, I’m played by a white, male FBI agent,” she points out.

Meares taught at the University of Chicago Law School from 1995 to 2007, which is when she became interested in the work of William Julius Wilson, also at the University of Chicago at the time.

“People were talking about the notion of an underclass and what poverty policy should look like,” she says. “The homicide rate was starting to surge, and I became fascinated by such questions as how to deal with the seemingly intractable problem of high crime in connection with social problems like poverty and under-education.”

Up to this time, she says legal scholars tended to think of criminal law and policy in individualistic terms. It was all about what constitutional law has to say about prosecuting or defending individuals.

“But I began to wonder how criminal law policy affected the lives of communities—people who are subject to both the problem of crime but also the policy response of the government,” she says. “I started to look at the psychology of fairness.”

Initially, Meares was a vocal proponent of what has become known as “broken windows” law enforcement. The idea is that if you strictly enforce minor offenses in a neighborhood, such as public drunkenness, prostitution, and aggressive panhandling, it will create an environment where people are less likely to commit more serious crimes.

When it was implemented in New York City, crime rates plummeted, and today it is the safest big city in the United States, Meares says. But she notes that it’s hard to compare New York City with any other city in the country because it has “an incredible amount of police resources.”

Meares also began to question some of the tactics being used, especially the stop and frisk strategy. In one of her papers, she notes that in 2012 more than 680,000 people were stopped and frisked in New York City, but nine out of 10 of these encounters did not result in an arrest or summons, and fewer than 2 percent of the encounters recovered weapons. Even more troubling, she says 80 percent of African-American men between the ages of 18 and 24, in the highest crime areas of the city, had been stopped by police at least once in 2008.

“I believe the bottom line is that any evaluation of broken windows policing should not consist merely of assessing whether ‘it works,’” she says. According to Meares, you also have to evaluate the impact the policy has on freedom and attitudes in the communities being protected.

At Yale, Meares began to work with Tyler, author of the book, Why People Obey the Law, and together they developed ideas on procedural justice.

“We found that when it comes to the fairness of legal authorities, people care about four things,” she says.

The first is “voice”—getting an opportunity to tell your side of the story. This is what Meares desired—and was given—when she had her own encounter with police after rolling through the stop sign in Chicago.

“The second thing people want is to be treated with dignity and respect for their rights,” she says. “You want to know you matter in some way.

“Third,” she continues, “people care about fair decision-making. They’re looking for neutrality, transparency, and decisions based on facts—not arbitrary or biased.”

Finally, the fourth thing people care about are the motives of the decision-maker with whom they’re dealing, whether it’s a police officer or judge. This factor can be influenced by a person’s past or by a community’s history. People who have fled from a country such as El Salvador, for example, may suspect the motives of all police because of their past experiences.

“Their history will tell them something about what to expect from police in the United States, even if they know for a fact that the police in the U.S. are not the same as the police in El Salvador,” she says. “The common denominator of a police uniform is what matters to them.”

All of this work on procedural justice may seem a million miles away from her general engineering training, but Meares says it is actually not so far removed. In ISE today, systems engineering and design is a holistic and interdisciplinary branch of engineering that can be used to analyze complex systems, whether you’re talking about technological or social systems—or both.

“I was looking at the current ISE website, and it described how the department is teaching students the theory of engineering thinking,” she says. “And I realized that’s still pretty much the way I think.”

According to Meares, she was using engineering thinking when she shifted the focus from analyzing crime in individualistic ways to looking at impacts on an entire community. Procedural justice also is an example of engineering thinking, so she says she remains a “math and science kid,” even in the world of law and order.

Meares and Tyler began teaching procedural justice principles as part of a training program with the Chicago Police Department in 2012. Then, in 2014, they received a grant to begin the Justice Collaboratory—an interdisciplinary group of scholars at Yale University working on issues to make the criminal justice system more effective, just, and democratic. Meares and Tyler teamed up with police trainers to develop a three-day training module and began to work with police departments in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Fort Worth, Gary, Birmingham, and Stockton, California. This grant also started the National Initiative for Building Trust and Justice.

In 2014, Meares became one of 11 members of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This task force was built around three core ideas—one of which was Meares and Tyler’s ideas on procedural justice.

“One of our goals was to get officers to think of themselves not as warriors against crime, but instead as guardians of the community,” Meares says. “Thinking of yourself as a warrior against crime can lead to the idea that crime reduction can be its own warrant for what police do. In other words, as long as they’re reducing crime, they can do whatever they want. And that can’t be right.”

Meares doesn’t known if “guardian” is really the right word, but this idea stresses that police should stand side by side with a community, rather than wage war within a neighborhood.

“We have found police pretty open to it, but their biggest fear is giving up power on the street,” she says.

Police try to maintain control through a “command presence,” and Meares says she has no problem with that. She says police need to be “authoritative” on the streets, but problems arise when officers become “authoritarian.”

“You can be an authoritative person and still explain what you’re doing, and be polite and dignified to people,” she says. “It’s almost become trite to say that everything in life that matters you learned in kindergarten. But actually…everything in life that matters you learned in kindergarten.”

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