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Did The Dallas Ambush Set Back Reform At Police Departments?

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And let's turn now to one of the leading voices on police reform. Tracey Meares is a professor at Yale Law School and a member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Thank you for joining us.

TRACEY MEARES: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, we keep hearing the key to improving trust between the public and the police is something called community policing. It's been around for a long, long time. How could that have changed what happened in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, if it could have?

MEARES: Well I think the issue is about the fact that community policing, which has been around for a long time, means a lot of different things to many different people. And one of the things that we try to do in the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing is to provide some building blocks as to what that means. The first pillar of the president's task force report focused on something we called building trust and legitimacy. But I think if community policing is carried out in that way that it could have the potential to address some of the issues that people are concerned about.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, intuitively, community policing seems to be, like, police on the beat or police in the community. Is that basically what it is.

MEARES: No, I think it's much more about a theory of how you build trust that focuses on the ways in which people understand the fairness of legal authorities. And what people are looking for is something - for, like, four things. They want an opportunity when engaging with legal authorities to have voice to tell their side of the story. They want to be able to be treated with dignity and respect. That's the second factor. The third factor is, when evaluating the decisions of legal authorities, they want to be able to tell that those decisions are fair - that is, made with - on the basis of facts, neutral, transparent. And fourth, and perhaps most important, people are looking to be able to expect to be treated benevolently in the future by legal authorities.

It can be summed up in one phrase, and that is people want legal authorities, such as police - they want to be able to believe that those legal authorities believe that they count. That's kind of a double - you know, a double phrase. I'll say it one more time. I, as a person in this country, want to believe that the legal authorities who deal with me believe that I count. It's much more about how you are treated than - often, you know, than the outcomes that those authorities produce.

MONTAGNE: Now, you, I gather, are part of a project in Fort Worth, which is right next to Dallas, to improve relations between police and citizens of color. Just specifically, give us an example of how that's going there.

MEARES: Well, we're focusing on three things in the building-trust initiative. If you go to the website trustandjustice.org, you can see the three issues that we're focusing - focusing on. One has to do with procedural justice, which is a theory of how people understand the fairness of legal authorities, as I just explained. We're training police officers to understand the theories of procedural justice. That's one. Another is focusing on the mind science of bias. And we're also working on aspects of racial reconciliation, helping policing agencies in Fort Worth and in five other cities across the country to build out approaches that emphasize these three aspects.

MONTAGNE: Let me, though - we've been hearing about the different things that you're trying, but just - just, sort of briefly, what is your sense, after the killings in Dallas, of how open police officers are and will be to reform efforts?

MEARES: I think there's no doubt that - that after the killings in Dallas, it's a harder slog. But I can tell you, I'm on a listserv with many of the great officers who are working hard on this project. And it's my sense that the people who believe in what we're doing feel that it's more important than ever to be committed to these ideas, just as the police chief in Dallas, Chief Brown, pointed these - pointed that out as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

MEARES: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Tracey Meares is a professor at Yale Law School and a member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.