The Trayvon Martin case unfolding in the news right now has important lessons to teach about racism, justice, and the American legal system. On February 26, a 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin was killed after walking back from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, a local neighborhood watch captain, thought the young man, looked suspicious.
Zimmerman called 911 and was told not to get involved: Police were on the way. Zimmerman, however, decided to pursue and then kill Martin. When police arrived, they found that Martin had been carrying nothing but a bag of candy and a can of iced tea.
After police decided not to arrest Zimmerman, on the grounds of self-defense, Martin’s family held a press conference to demand justice. The case became a national sensation, with TV and newspaper commentators asking questions about the “Stand Your Ground” law adopted by Florida and 20 other states that was used to justify Martin’s killing.
Both Governor Rick Scott of Florida and the federal government have opened investigations about Trayvon Martin’s death. In Sanford, the City Commission reviewed the police chief’s handling of the case and passed a no-confidence vote.
If you’re involved in criminal justice training as an academy instructor or an FTO, you can use the Trayvon Martin case to underline some important principles about professional law enforcement:
1. Education is necessary. If you’ve ever taught in an academy, you’ve met eager young recruits who can’t wait to hit the street and fight crime. Often they want to know if all those procedures and regulations are really necessary. The Trayvon Martin case shows why the answer is an emphatic yes.
2. Police are accountable to the community. In a democratic society like ours, no one is protected from questions and challenges from the public. As church leaders have discovered in the wake of recent sex abuse scandals, “because I said so” responses don’t work the way they used to. Police departments are subject to the same scrutiny and challenges.
3. Racism is not over. When Barack Obama was elected four years ago, many Americans breathed a sigh of relief that centuries of black-white tensions were finally coming to an end. Other citizens predicted that police departments would be ordered to favor African-Americans in criminal proceedings after Obama took office. Neither event has come to pass.
4. Eyes and ears are everywhere. Neighbors who heard the encounter disagreed with the police report, insisting that Martin never attacked Zimmerman. When police refused to correct the record, the neighbors went public. Martin’s girlfriend reported the cell phone conversation she’d been having with him before he died, again casting doubt on the official police account. Recordings of Zimmerman’s 911 calls, which raise questions about a racial epithet and a possible hate-crime charge, have also been released.
5. Law enforcement is not the same as prosecution. In the Orlando Sentinel, reporter Henry Pierson Curtis noted that Florida police routinely make arrests in self-defense cases: They wisely leave it to the courts to sort out what really happened and act accordingly.
Professionalism in any field is never instinctive: It must be taught and learned. Although George Zimmerman reportedly had taken several criminal justice courses, he was not a sworn police officer: In fact he was not even affiliated with the Neighborhood Watch program, which provides thorough and careful training for its volunteers. The Trayvon Martin case dramatically underlines the need for training and respect for regulations and the chain of command in criminal justice. Sometimes a life depends on it.
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers.