Tracey Meares on “Smart, Tough, and Fair: Reducing Crime in 60 Minutes or Less”

Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

In a room packed with faculty from Yale and other prestigious universities, officials from the New Haven Police Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office, and dozens of graduate and law students, Tracey Meares, an ISPS Faculty Fellow, gave her inaugural lecture as the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law on the problem of gun violence in American cities.

Drawing from decades of work, Professor Meares highlighted three conceptual approaches to gun violence that have been underappreciated by both law enforcement and policy makers:

1. Neighborhood context and effects
2. Network structure
3. Legitimacy of the law

The first perspective argues that, despite media depictions and political rhetoric, it is particular neighborhoods within cities, not cities themselves, which have high rates of violence. More importantly, even within statistically violent neighborhoods, there are hot spots or micro-places within those neighborhoods that experience disproportionate numbers of shootings and gun homicides over time.Network theory, in particular work done by Associate Professor of Sociology and ISPS Faculty Fellow Andrew Papachristos, highlights that even within high-risk populations, murder is not randomly or evenly distributed. In other words, not every young black male in a structurally disadvantaged neighborhood is equally likely to be a shooter or a victim of gun violence. Network analysis in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, and other cities has shown that violent crime in urban centers, both in terms of victims and perpetrators, is concentrated among a tiny sliver of the total population.

Finally, work on public perceptions of the legitimacy of the law by Yale Law School Professor and ISPS Faculty Fellow Tom Tyler stresses the importance of the characteristics of the interaction between citizens and law enforcement. When people are allowed to explain their side of the story, are treated in a fair and dignified manner by police, and believe that the police are acting out of benevolent interests (and not, say, discriminatory profiling), they are more likely to see the law as legitimate.

With findings like these in mind, Meares and several colleagues implemented Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) in Chicago, a violence reduction strategy aimed at reducing gun violence. A key element of the strategy was the “forum,” where high-risk individuals, many of them gang members, were called in to meetings with law enforcement officials and community leaders. This unique model of information dissemination not only stresses the need for violence cessation (as well as promising consequences if it does not) but also provides the promise of assistance to those who are willing to put down their weapons and attempt to turn their lives around.

Meares argued that the forum system is an ideal way to create “common knowledge,” whereby every participant is aware that all the other participants in the room are hearing the same message, being warned of the same consequences for continued violence, and being offered the same type of aid. In a social world where being caught on the street without a gun can mean the difference between life and death, violence reduction often faces the coordination problem of getting everyone to put their guns down at the same time. Common knowledge can thus help to create an avenue for an “honorable exit” for all participants.

In light of a 37 percent drop in quarterly homicide rates in project area, as well as the finding that participation in forums was associated with staying out of prison 30 percent longer  than those who did not attend a forum, it’s becoming clear that strategies such as Project Safe Neighborhoods may be an effective way to deal with violent crime in urban areas. Meares also maintained, however, that the success of the forums shows that brute force is not the most effective way to police. Instead, by employing knowledge of neighborhood context, network structure, and the importance of legitimacy in initiatives like PSN, a new mode of interaction between police, criminals, and the community can be forged that may ultimately lead to a reduction in gun violence.

Area of study 
Criminal Justice