Obamas, policing, and gun violence

Tracey Meares takes a break from vacation to talk about her friends and her research.

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Yale University law professor and former Obama-era Task Force of 21st Century Policing member Tracey Meares, who is on-Island this week for vacation, spoke with The Times Thursday about the current state of policing in America. — Gabrielle Mannino

Tracey Meares looks relaxed. She has a cup of coffee in one hand, and she’s contemplating another day looking out over Farm Pond from her summer rental in Oak Bluffs.

Her trip just happens to coincide with a couple of high-profile friends of hers — Michelle and Barack Obama. Michelle comes first because Meares was friends with her first — and that was long before there was a hint Michelle and Barack Obama would become one of the most powerful couples in the United States.

Meares is distinguished in her own right. She is Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale Law School, the founding director of the Justice Collaboratory, and served on the Presidential Task Force for 21st Century Policing. She says it is mere coincidence that her trip coincided with the Obamas being on the Island. And still another happy coincidence is that her visit coincided with what has long been an annual pilgrimage of African Americans to the Island. Those visits first began in the early part of the 20th century, when formerly enslaved people came to Oak Bluffs for the religious service around what would become the Bradley Square Memorial Church.

This was the first year Meares stayed in Oak Bluffs. Her previous stays had been in Vineyard Haven, after she stopped going to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with family and friends.

“I thought, This is a magical place,” Meares said of her first impressions of the Island after her visit in 2007. “We’ve been here every year since, almost always in August. It turned out all my friends were here in August. There does seem to be a very large African American community that comes here in August. The sociologist in me was like, That’s a fascinating thing. Then plumbing the history, it is fascinating.”

Meares first met Barack Obama when the two of them were teaching at the University of Chicago. It was 1994, and Bill Clinton, another president with a passion for the Vineyard, was in the White House.

“It was a long time ago. It was an exciting time, I think. When I say exciting time, I’m not even talking retrospectively,” Meares said. “I had this opportunity to be a visiting assistant professor, and [Obama] was there working on his book. I don’t even remember the exact position he had at the time. I got hired on tenure track the next year, and I’m sure if he wanted a job, they would have given it to him. But I think he wanted to do other things.”

Though Obama stood out, there were a lot of young, upwardly mobile people at the University of Chicago in those days. Nobody talked about Obama becoming president someday, not in the way that people always considered Clinton presidential material when he was at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale.

“What I can say is that everyone who met [Obama] thought he was an incredibly impressive person. Not to take anything away from him, but the University of Chicago is no slouchy place. There are a lot of incredible people. This is at the same time that I think Steve Levitt had just showed up. Did anyone think he would become the Steve Levitt of ‘Freakonomics’ fame? I don’t know.”

Then Obama gave his Democratic National Convention speech in 2004, which propelled him into the national spotlight.

By 2005, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Meares was excited for him. “He was my friend. You always want your friends to succeed in the projects they set for themselves. Also, you want the people you know can do good in the world to be the people in those jobs.”

Meares, who had moved on to Connecticut in 2007, worked on Obama’s campaign with her children: “It was wonderful.”

These days the question on the minds of a lot of Democrats is whether Michelle Obama might be the answer to unseating President Donald Trump. Michael Moore first brought up the subject earlier this month, predicting the former first lady would trounce Trump if she ran. But in an interview with the National Onboard, Amtrak’s travel magazine, Michelle Obama poured ice water on any hopes of that, saying there is “zero chance” she would run.

“Should she run? I don’t know.” Meares said, a wide smile growing. “She won’t. I can’t imagine she would.”

Taking that step requires tremendous sacrifice, and Michelle loves her husband and daughters: “I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t make a good president. But it’s a thing you have to want to do, right? She’s amazing.”

 

Reforming police, seeking an end to violence

In 2014, Michael Brown was shot by police in St. Louis (the five-year anniversary was Friday), and Eric Garner died due to excessive force used by New York City police. In the wake of those incidents and the racial unrest that unfolded, Obama established the Presidential Task Force for 21st Century Policing.

The foundation for Meares’ involvement on that task force was set in the early 2000s when she was invited to participate in a forum with a group of scholars and executives at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Her focus was on procedural justice and legitimacy.

Charles Ramsey, who would eventually co-chair the Presidential Task Force for 21st Century Policing, was also there. Ron Davis, who was picked to lead the Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) also worked on that research at Harvard, and was involved in selecting the task force. “I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the president knew me,” Meares said.

The detailed report made dozens of recommendations centered around key pillars — building trust and legitimacy, policy and oversight, technology and social media, community policing and crime reduction, training and education, and officer wellness and safety.

While there has been some frustration expressed about the slow implementation of those recommendations, and the Trump administration’s attempts to erase them from history (the report was taken down from the Department of Justice website, but lives on in PDFs), Meares is encouraged by the number of new police chiefs who actually use the report as a foundation for their departments.

“It’s clear that the present administration is not pursuing the agenda of police reform that the Obama administration did. That said, if you look around the country at the state and local level, I think it’s pretty clear there has been a sea change,” she said. “I don’t think there is a major city police chief in the country that has not publicly said, This is what I want to do in terms of the task force recommendations. Some have seriously tried and taken steps to implement the recommendations.”

Meares said the task force did yeomen’s work. Given a 90-day deadline — some of those days swallowed up by the holidays — they held public hearings across the country and produced a document they could all get behind.

“One of the things that’s most gratifying about it is that we were actually able to create a work product in that short of a period of time — one that we thought was actually pretty good,” she said. “We all agreed, which is pretty impressive. And it had staying power.” New police chiefs taking office have vowed to use the recommendations to shape their departments, she said. “It totally became a thing.”

That’s not to say that problems are gone. What happened in Galveston, Texas, earlier this month is a reminder, and has renewed outrage. In that case, a police officer arrested Donald Neeley and reportedly led the man by what appeared to be a rope. The officer was on horseback, which evoked images of the treatment of slaves, according to published reports of the arrest.

“That image is like, ‘Wow! We’re in the Antebellum Era,” Meares said. “I focus on policing because it’s this place where people are going to have this important contact — police and public school teachers.”

Meares continues to speak out about injustice and the need for police reform: “I care that everyone should have an opportunity to understand themselves as a citizen of this country. I focus on policing because it’s really clear to me the ways in which policing has power to do both good and ill.” Meares has been criticized for her views on reform, particularly that police can no longer exist as they do now: “I have this piece in the Boston Review where I say police as we know it needs to be abolished, you know, and rethought differently.”

With two recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, fresh in our minds, the conversation turned to gun violence. It’s another area where Meares is diving in and hoping to make a difference — not with just mass shootings, which she says are a small percentage of gun violence, but with all violence, including deaths in her native Chicago, and the lives lost to suicide. “The thing we don’t talk about at all and the NRA never talks about is suicide,” she said. “That’s a national tragedy.”

Meares is embarking on a new project at Yale related to gun violence with Abbe Gluck, director of the Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy. “We are putting together a semester-long seminar in the spring where we are bringing together doctors, psychologists, social science researchers, lawyers, to sort of put together a volume of the journal of medical legal ethics,” she said. “We’re really testing some robust strategies, theories about the Second Amendment, all of this in one volume.” 

The Solomon Center most recently tackled the opioid crisis, and some of its work resulted in statute changes in Connecticut and elsewhere. She’s hoping its work on gun violence can have a similar effect.

Meares noted that Oakland, Calif., has demonstrated a drop in gun violence by implementing a “Cease Fire,” a program that incorporates four primary components, according to the Mercury News. The newspaper reported, “Those include data-driven identification of the groups and individuals at the highest risk of being involved in a shooting; respectful communication of that risk directly to those groups and individuals; an offer of real services, support, and opportunities to those at the very highest risk of gun violence; and focused enforcement, where police conduct narrowly targeted enforcement operations specifically on those individuals that continue to engage in violent crime after they receive the communication.”

“There are things we can do,” Meares said. “Oakland is a good example.”