Tracey Meares is a serious scholar.

After earning an undergraduate engineering degree, she attended the University of Chicago School of Law, clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, worked as an antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department. Now she teaches at the Yale Law School, where she’s gained a nationwide reputation for her research on police approaches to urban violence.

And so she’s about the last person you might expect to drop a reference to The Fonz.

But she does. She titled at one of her many talks “Don’t Jump the Shark,” a direct reference to the Happy Days sit-com of the 1970s and 1980s. In the waning years of the long-running show, Meares explains, the show’s producers kept hinting that they were going to have the ultra-cool, ultra-tough Fonz “jump a shark in this amazing sort of feat, and that was going to draw viewers to the show. Well, it didn’t work,” and the show died off.

And Meares then makes her point. She said law enforcement authorities in urban areas are guilty of the same thing as the Happy Days folks — not recognizing when the end of the line has been reached. “The suggestion that I want to offer here is that an emphasis on deterrence in law enforcement has had a good run, but it’s time to let it go,” she said.

Meares’ views are gaining a nationwide audience, and have helped shape Project Longevity, the anti-urban violence initative in Connecticut announced by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in late November. She has given numerous talks at colleges, to law schools, bar groups, and even the National Institute of Justice.

Her research focuses on the dynamics of interactions between police and urban males. Her conclusion is that law enforcement’s approach of seeking deterrence by instilling fear is outdated and ineffective. As it stands, she said, too many police departments — and officers — are worried only about what is legal and constitutionally permissible, such as frisking a person who might be carrying a gun.

But, Meares said, such an approach is self-defeating, because it leaves young urban males with a negative view of authority. Instead, she argues, police can build what she calls “legitimacy” by trying to be respectful and even helpful to those they encounter.

“It boils down to understanding why it is we think people obey the law,” Meares said in an interview. “We might think it is because they fear the consequences of failing to do so. Other ideas of why people obey the law is because they think it’s the right thing to do; it’s a moral imperative, or because they think that government has the right to dictate to them proper behavior.”

In 2009, Meares was appointed to a national panel to analyze the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and she uses facts from that incident in her lectures. One telling incident: When Gates asked the arresting officer’s name and badge number, the officer stands mute. “You’re not responding because I’m black and you’re white,” was the professor’s reply. The officer’s silence was legal, but it did nothing to convey or enhance his legitimacy, Meares points out.

The idea for Project Longevity was kindled in the mind of Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney, David Fein two years ago. He was impressed by some of the ideas he took away from a conference on curbing gun murders, at which New York criminal justice scholar David Kennedy was the keynote speaker. At an early stage, Fein looked into the research of one of Kennedy’s collaborators, who happened to be Meares.

Meares is no newcomer to urban violence projects. For nearly a decade, she, Kennedy and Yale sociology professor Andrew Papachristos have been involved in Chicago’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, a Justice Department program charged with reducing the high level of homicide and gun violence in the city.

Meares’ and Papchristos’ work on Project Safe Neighborhoods focused on 24 socially isolated and impovershed neighborhoods in Chicago’s west side. The effort resulted in homicide rates dropping from 60 to 30 per 100,000 people, from 2002 to 2006.

Under the direction of the U.S. Attorney, local, state and federal law enforcement teamed with community organizations and research scholars. Targeting one key problem, nearly 40,000 adults who are released from prison annually, the project found that half of these prisoners return to Chicago, concentrating in the poorest neighborhoods with the least resources to fight recidivism.

The project developed community forums in which the ex-prisoners were given the message that the consequences of further gun violence would be severe, but that choices are offered for those who wish to remake their lives. The ex-cons heard from law enforcement that incarceration for gun offenses would be swift and certain, from ex-offenders of the rewards of turning one’s life around, and from community service providers about counseling, training, shelter and mentoring. Potential employers gave tips of how to succeed, with a general message that the tone was not to condemn, and that the right choice was up to the individual.

New Haven’s Project Longevity involves further teamwork between Meares and Papachristos.

At its heart is a methodical identification of the friends and enemies most likely to shoot or be shot. Papachristos is the numbers cruncher. He used criminal arrest records to map out social networks of gang members engaged in lethal gunplay. He and Meares identified these networks through basic criminal records — reports of co-arrests, focusing on who gets arrested with whom.

“What I’ve done in Longevity, and in Chicago, is actually put the science of social networks behind the project,” said Papachristos. “You no longer have to guess who’s in the middle of these networks. You can actually re-create the networks through behaviors.”

Once the networks of violent groups — or gangs — are identified, they are given a message through a carefully-arranged presentation called a “call-in.” A few members of each gang are called before groups of community members and law enforcement officials, as occurred one night in late November, at the New Haven hall of records.

Meares’ research helped design the call-in.

During the session, community members —ministers, parents, the chief of police — expressed the community’s strong and caring hope that the young men give up their battling now, before it’s too late. Another speaker, who had made a change from gang life to constructive living, recounted how it can be done. Social service agency representatives outlined the support that’s available.

At the same time, the police warn gang member that they are fully aware of who is engaged in gun violence, and if the crews choose to disregard this warning, and another murder ensues, the entire gang will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

“The fact that we actually call people in before we implement the new rules, is an indicator of procedural justice,” Meares said. By giving the gang membrs fair warning, the community and law enforcement is not “setting up a world in which the violator can say, ‘You’re only doing this because you hate me,’ or ‘You’re only doing this because I’m black.

“They can’t tell a story that you’re implementing your authority in a way that’s illegitimate. It’s the opposite — ‘it’s simply I’m simply keeping the promise that I made.’ ”

In coming months, said Meares, Project Longevity is expected to spread to Hartford and Bridgeport, building on the same concepts. “By coupling the law enforcement message with the social services message, we’re making clear that this is your choice — we’re not making you do anything. Nobody can make you do anything,” said Meares. “This is all you. You have to make a decision to change. You have to make a decision to put down the guns.” •