Justice Collaboratory Holds Inaugural Conference

Speaking at the inaugural conference for the newly launched Justice Collaboratory at Yale, Vanita Gupta spoke about the striking contrast in stories she hears while talking with police officers and grieving families around the country.

“I have spent a lot of time with local leaders and community members in cities all around the country, including with numerous mothers who have lost their children in officer-involved shootings,” said Gupta, the Acting Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The pain and the anger and the frustration and the lack of trust in law enforcement is real and it is profound.”

In these conversations, Gupta said she hears frequently that community members — particularly young people in minority communities — are losing trust and faith in the criminal justice system.

Gupta also discussed the sentiments expressed by the majority of well-intentioned law enforcement officers around the country, who feel the public does not account for the thousands of split-second decision they make everyday that don’t escalate into violent and tragic situations.

“They feel attacked and undervalued,” said Gupta, stressing the important role that police play in our society. “They talk about how the actions of a few bad actors have really tarnished the whole profession.”

Despite these opposing viewpoints, Gupta said, everyone she has met with agrees that society faces grave challenges when it comes to the erosion of trust between police and communities around the country.

“The consequences of the mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve can be devastating,” said Gupta, a longtime civil rights attorney who previously worked for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Where people perceive the justice system to be arbitrary, unjust, and unfair, they are unlikely to cooperate with law enforcement, making us all less safe.”

Her passionate keynote served as the kick off for the two-day conference on April 16 and 17 titled Policing Post-Ferguson, which brought police chiefs and other law enforcement officials, community activists, academics, journalists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and representatives from the Department of Justice.

“They talk about being tired of being viewed as criminals first and human beings second,” Gupta said.

Funded by The Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School, the conference featured a series of panel discussions with experts from law enforcement, government, and academia that examined the police relationships with minority communities, “broken windows” policing, civilian oversight of police departments, and the future of policing.

The newly launched Justice Collaboratory at Yale, a center created by Professors Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler, brings brings together scholars and researchers of diverse theoretical and methodological orientations at Yale University and elsewhere to work on issues related to institutional reform and policy innovation and advancement. The Collaboratory infuses theory, empirical research, and targeted clinical trials in order to achieve its goal of making the components of criminal justice operation simultaneously more effective, just, and democratic. It is one of several academic institutions throughout the country that have joined together to form the Justice Department’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.

“Students at Yale Law School have been grappling with how they, as attorneys in training, can be supportive of both the police and the communities they have pledged to serve, and what role students and young lawyers can and should play in helping to repair the sometimes frayed relationship between the two,” said Megan Quattlebaum, Program Director for the Justice Collaboratory. “This conference offered them an opportunity to consider these questions, and to inform their perspectives with input from some of the foremost thinkers and leaders in the field.”

The conference came during a time of heightened awareness and engagement surrounding the issues of police legitimacy. Professor Tom Tyler told the audience that they expected to hear many different views and theories among the diverse group of attendees, but they were confident that everyone in the room would agree on the importance of this moment in time.

“What we think will unite everyone here, and certainly what is important to us, is that this seems like a period in history when there’s a real opportunity to talk about and potentially rethink a lot about not only policing but criminal justice in general,” said Tyler.

In concluding the keynote address, Gupta said she agreed with Tyler, expressing that for the first time in recent history, criminal justice reform was a top priority and it was imperative to take full advantage of the moment.

“Today there is widespread, even bipartisan recognition that our criminal justice system needs an overhaul,” said Gupta. “We have an unprecedented opportunity right now to address fundamental problems in the way that communities across the country interact with police.”