20th December 2017

On the 11th of October we had the honour of welcoming Prof. Tracey Meares to Appleton Tower at the University of Edinburgh to give this year’s SCCJR Annual Lecture, Thinking Through the “Public” in Public Legitimacy.

Prof. Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law and Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory at Yale University. Before taking up her post at Yale she was the Max Pam Professor of Law at University of Chicago Law School. In 2014, former United States President Barak Obama named her as a member of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. In the following few paragraphs I attempt the task of conveying the central messages of Prof. Meares lecture.

Prof. Meares crafted a complex, nuanced and compelling argument synthesising a diverse range of criminological work on both sides of the Atlantic to address one of the central concerns of contemporary American criminal justice; how to improve police legitimacy and public trust. 2016 saw the deaths of 1,093 people at the hands of law enforcement in the US, many of which sparked national outrage and social unrest. As footage of the events dominated the world’s screens, the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of those sworn to protect them rendered visible systemic problems of American policing, and offered a stark reminder of those closer to home. After all, it is not so long since the police killing of Mark Duggan fuelled riots across England. Prof. Meares argued that these symbolic communications matter, along with every other interaction we have with the police. This is because our relationship with the police is a signifier of our relationship to the state, but more importantly to ourselves as citizens and to each other as communities. Considering the troubled and divided atmosphere of contemporary times, addressing this is an urgent matter and as Prof. Meares herself stated, ‘[T]he stakes are high’.

What are the police actually for? 

Prof. Meares began by constructing the theoretical apparatus for the research problem, approached from the challenging question; ‘What are the police actually for?” Prof. Meares dismantled the notion that central to the police role is crime reduction, and nor should it be. Despite the “crime drop”, few gains have been made in building public trust and legitimacy in those US neighbourhoods most affected by it. This is because police effectiveness at crime reduction isn’t the most important part of legitimacy, it is that belief that each of us matter. Citizens need to feel that in their interactions with authorities they will be approached with neutrality, benevolence, a willing ear, and with dignity – “Members of the public want to believe that the authority they are dealing with believes that they count”. This is why police shootings dominating our media matters, why constructing the police role in terms of effectiveness in reducing crime is inherently problematic, and thinking of public legitimacy through the ‘public’ is useful and necessary. How people think about policing is grounded in direct and indirect experience over time. ‘Trust implicates history’, and for many groups, that history is one of discrimination, racism and violence.

Curriculum Theory

It is against this backdrop that Prof. Meares’ current research sets out to study procedural justice and police legitimacy at the community level. Prof. Meares’ research explores, through phone surveys of residents in various communities, the development of quantitative measures of police legitimacy as experienced at the community, rather than the individual level, which represents a significant methodological challenge to the field. The end is not only to identify how policing ought to change, but also to make broader claims about the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and what it communicates to us about our identity as citizens. Drawing on ‘curriculum theory’, Prof. Meares argued that while the formal criminal justice curriculum may preach ‘rights’ and ‘justice’, there is another ‘hidden curriculum’ enshrined in different groups interactions with authorities. Who you are and where you live plays into the lessons you are taught, and for many the learning outcomes simply don’t correspond with the syllabus. If public-police relations are to be improved instead of eroded, then significant change is required to address that ‘hidden curriculum’.

Building Legitimacy and Public Trust 

In her concluding remarks, Prof. Meares highlighted that the police are important symbols of the state and national identity (‘the British Bobby’ being a key example). While sometimes a source of pride, for many what ‘the police’ means is far less encouraging. As a ‘condensation symbol’, policing can both strengthen and weaken ties between groups, and it is essential this is kept in mind when answering that question; ‘What are the police actually for?’ The message is clear, police and policing should be for everyone. Founded on both their theoretical and empirical work, Prof. Meares and colleagues answer that question as follows; the primary goal and function of policing should be building legitimacy and public trust. Emphasising ‘public legitimacy’ over ‘public safety’ means that the police not only address crime but strengthen relations with and between individuals and communities – ‘it serves all ends’.

After an invigorating discussion which touched on various conceptual, methodological practical challenges posed by researching public legitimacy, Prof. Meares joined the SCCJR community for a drinks reception. You can read more about Professor Meares research and impact here.

Written by Shane Horgan, University of Edinburgh