Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law, Tracey L. Meares
Credit: Yale University

Professor Meares teaches courses on criminal law, criminal procedure, and criminal justice reform as the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale University. She specializes in researching police behavior, best practices, and legitimacy—a specialization that landed her on the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Meares has authored many scholarly works, appears frequently as a commentator on National Public Radio and C-SPAN, and has clerked in multiple governmental offices—including the Antitrust Division, the old stomping ground of Jackson. Moreover, Professor Meares is the first African American woman to be granted tenure at both Yale and the University of Chicago Law Schools. She is, perhaps, the foremost scholar in policing, and is surely among the greatest legal minds of our time.

Nothing could have prepared Meares—or the audience—for the eerie timeliness of the lecture’s topic. As she began, Meares promised that unlike some Robert H. Jackson Lectures in the past, hers would bring “no uplift today,” referencing the recent tragic deaths of police officers and citizens alike in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas. Leading up to the lecture, Meares made constant edits to the lecture in an effort to incorporate recent developments, noting that the current policing issues are at “the leading edge of a constellation of issues” that have the potential to “undermine the very notion of citizenship.

Meares reminded the audience of the necessity for a careful balance of liberty and order, as Jackson himself so often did. In Terminiello v. Chicago, Jackson famously stated that “the choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.” Jackson’s highest ideals included free speech and educated discussion, upon which our beloved democracy was built. The 12th Annual Jackson Lecture evoked the same sense of balance, level-headedness, and candor that is necessary for open dialogue of critical issues.

The lecture also turned to the role of the Supreme Court in 21st century policing. While the court is unable to specifically alter policing in the United States, it does play a critical role in developing the “narrative” of law enforcement. She urged the crowd that “all branches of government, at the federal and local level, need to work together—with the public’s help—to push justice forward.”

Meares promised no quick fix to the crisis of American policing, noting that weeding out a few “bad eggs” was not the solution. Moving forward, a focus on fairness and dignity is necessary. In analyzing fairness, Meares advocated that we must recognize the importance of considering the lay view, as people “want to believe that the authority they are dealing with—let’s say a police officer—believes that they count.” Meares underscored the importance of perceived fairness, adding, “I’ll say that again, and I’ll make it personal. I want to believe that the police officer I’m dealing with believes that I count.”

The culmination of Professor Meares’ speech was a message that stretches far beyond the present day. She reflected that as “we are in the midst of a national moment,” it is clear that conflicts between the what one is told and what one experiences dictate “who is, and who is not, a citizen.” And, while path dependency and righteousness are difficult to overcome, the alternative is far worse. By speaking with representatives, forming a stronger community identity, and developing a narrative that portrays law enforcement officers as “guardians” rather than “warriors,” the evolution of 21st century policing can ensure a balance of liberty and order for all.