Q&A with the Justice Collaboratory on Police Reform and Procedural Justice

In January 2015, Yale Law School faculty cofounders Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler began the Justice Collaboratory (the JC) as one of several academic institutions that were part of the U.S. Justice Department’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice (the NI). The NI’s launch was the Obama administration’s response to the murder of Michael Brown, who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Just as we are experiencing today, Brown’s death set off an outcry across the country and prompted vital conversations about police legitimacy and trust. Since then, the JC’s primary aim has been to lead fundamental criminal justice reform that is evidence-based. The Center operates using a specific theory of change, procedural justice — in which the central goal of the criminal justice system must be to increase cooperation and trust between individuals and the state. To this end, the JC recently released a report titled “Re-Imagining Public Safety: Prevent Harm and Lead with the Truth,” which outlined important steps forward for policing in America.

Five years later, outrage has ensued following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As the nation clamors for solutions to another senseless tragedy and systemic police distrust, we asked Professor Meares, Professor Tyler, and Executive Director of the Justice Collaboratory Caroline Nobo Sarnoff to reflect on what they have learned, and outline how they think the country should move forward in pursuit of equal justice.

Q: The mantra of the Justice Collaboratory is “Serious Science, Serious Impact.” What does the data tell us about where we are right now? Are there glimmers of hope despite the place this country finds itself in today?

MEARES: I’m glad you asked this question because it gets to the root of the Justice Collaboratory’s response to our country’s ongoing need for police reform. American policing has largely been shaped by improvisation, with leaders engaging in a recurrent pattern of reacting to immediate perceived crises and public panics with quick fixes. These efforts are often guided by guesses and intuitions, many of which are found to be erroneous at best and counterproductive at worst. Ultimately, you can’t expect transformational change based on improvisation. History tells us we need a deep dive into developing evidence-informed policies and practices before doing anything drastic, like dismantling the police.

And yes, there are glimmers of hope. For example, the images of police chiefs kneeling with protesters — we feel strongly this wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago or even before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. These actions are not idiosyncratic: The leaders of major national police organizations, like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), have also issued statements of support for policing changes. We also know that following a one-day procedural justice training, police departments experience a 6.4 percent decline in use of force and 10 percent decline in officer complaints over a two-year period. You can read more about these findings in this recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Police department trainings are not a silver bullet, but they are a down payment on what larger, evidence-based interventions can do in reducing police violence toward their communities. And they provide the beginnings of a foundation for the real discussion that we’ve never had in this country about the relationship between policing and how it serves all of our citizens’ needs.


Q: The Justice Collaboratory outlines a clear vision of a fairer and more effective justice system. What are the biggest obstacles that get in the way of making this system a reality?

TYLER: Federal support, in terms of both significant financial and policy investments. The United States has backslidden dramatically since the administration change in 2016. To make transformation possible there must be substantial buy-in from the federal government. For perspective, the NYPD’s annual budget is around $5.5 billion, but the last federal initiative to reform policing was funded at a mere pittance of $5 million, across three years, in six cities. The critique from some on the left that the Obama-era efforts “didn’t work” misses the point that the investment was a fraction against the status quo. It is also inaccurate, since there is evidence that the initiative did produce short-term effects that probably would have strengthened if the programs had continued over time, as was initially planned.

Beyond the fundamental hurdle of support, there has never been a conscious articulation of what Americans believe the connection between the police and the community ought to look like. And, large segments of those impacted by policing have been, and continue to be, excluded from any influence over how policing in their communities has occurred. If America is to move beyond its troubled and conflict-laden relationship with its police, it is necessary to have a broader serious discussion about what democratic policing can and should look like.

Q: Just this year, the Justice Collaboratory released a joint report with the Center for Policing Equity called Re-Imagining Public Safety: Prevent Harm and Lead with the Truth. What was the impetus for publishing this report and what are the main takeaways that you want people to know right now?

SARNOFF: It’s sadly ironic because what we were trying to do was amplify the importance of police reform to the then five presidential candidates. We were worried that police reform would slip down on the list of priorities and we wanted to make sure the candidates, and potential new president, would be equipped with a plan on how to reform American police, according to the experts. Obviously, we’ve once again found ourselves in this horrible position where the drumbeat will force the hand of the federal government. In the absence of long-term reform, violence from the police, as well as violent community actions in response, has been a recurring cycle within the United States.

The main points of the plan and the JC’s continuing message, is that communities have never been given voice to articulate what the police should do, and have few ways to hold them accountable. A holistic plan advocates for a more equal, symbiotic relationship between communities and police to co-produce public safety. To get there, we must repair and acknowledge past harms before moving forward.

Q: For communities and police departments around the country who are struggling with a path forward right now, what is the best first step to take to stem the tide and implement meaningful change?

SARNOFF: As you’ve seen in our earlier answers, I think it’s a mistake to try and fix anything with one “best first step.” Instead, we need to think about how we can immediately reduce harm while investing in a long-term strategy of change.

For example, eliminating certain “use of force” policies — like chokeholds and neck pressure that inhibit the carotid artery is a must. Police departments should also have policies that hold “bystander” cops accountable, as in the case of George Floyd and the three fellow officers who did nothing. Their silence and/or inaction has to be seen as guilt.

In a recent Yale Law Journal article, Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport discuss the phenomenon of “wandering officers.” These are law-enforcement officers fired by one department, sometimes for serious misconduct, who then find work at another agency. There needs to be a national database, with state interoperability, that tracks bad cops and keeps them from job-hopping.

I’ve outlined three immediate harm reduction strategies above, but there are no reasons why police departments cannot simultaneously start a historical accounting of all the transgressions and violence against people of color in their communities. I use the word accounting with intention, envisioning a detailed list of every harm caused, followed with a plan for reconciliation through restorative justice. It is necessary that communities of color see police departments acknowledging the pain and fear they are inflicting.