Questions continue to arise over the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26. What happened in the last moments of young Martin’s life? Which witnesses are telling the truth? Was George Zimmerman, who has admitted to shooting Martin, protected by his father, a retired judge? Most importantly, did Zimmerman fire his weapon in self-defense?
Amid all the controversy, there’s one topic I haven’t yet heard much talk about: Officer Timothy Smith’s police report. If it had been properly written, much of this controversy could have been avoided—at least that’s what I thought when this story first broke. Now, as more information becomes available, I’m beginning to think that the problematic police report might have been an early sign that something else was seriously wrong.
By now everyone is familiar with the basic facts about the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, became suspicious about a 17-year-old black youth who was walking in a gated community. Minutes later, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Police, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law, did not make arrest. According to a statement from Police Chief Bill Lee, that decision “was supported by physical evidence and testimony.”
Because of my background (I’ve taught basic standards and advanced report writing classes and written an instructional book), I noticed the words “physical evidence” immediately. As every recruit knows, you have to be specific when you write a report. I always instructed students to write down exactly what they saw: “cuts,” “bruises,” “swollen,” “discolored,” and so on. Generalizations (“she was hurt”) and conclusions (“his arm seemed to be broken”) were forbidden. I often called on childhood memories of Joe Friday and the Dragnet TV show: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
When I read Timothy Smith’s police report (he was the first officer at the Trayvon Martin scene), my immediate reaction was that Smith’s supervisor should have returned it with a request for more details. Here is Smith’s account of the “physical evidence” in the case: “…I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of his head.”
“Bleeding from the nose” could mean all kinds of things. A scratch? A nosebleed? A broken nose? And “bleeding from the back of his head”—was there a cut? How long? How wide? Officers often use phrases like “about the size of my little finger” or “a large cut on top of his head,” but there’s nothing like that here.
Was Zimmerman moaning? Did he have his head back to stop the nosebleed, or did he pinch his nostrils, or was he wiping away blood?
Was there grass in the head wound?
Smith does say that Zimmerman “was given first aid” by EMTs from the Sanford Fire Department. What injuries did they treat, and how? And how did Zimmerman respond? Did he show evidence of pain?
Similar questions arise about the “testimony” cited by Chief Bill Lee as justification for the shooting. Only one statement from Zimmerman is recorded: “I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me.” Officer Smith wrote, “At no point did I question Zimmerman about the incident that had taken place.” Where is Zimmerman’s account of what happened? (And where were Martin’s Skittles and iced tea? Their position might have a bearing on the case.)
And so we are left to wonder. Is this simply a case of a poorly written report that opened the door to all kinds of wild allegations? Or was something more sinister going on?
Recent developments have turned up the volume on the controversy. No bloodstains can be seen in the video of Zimmerman in police custody, and Zimmerman does not appear to be in pain when he exits the back seat of the police cruiser. Is this really a man who had been fighting for his life a short time earlier?
Now some journalists are suggesting that Zimmerman’s father, a retired Virginia judge, may have used connections to pressure police into releasing his son from custody.
So we’re still waiting to find out what really happened in Sanford on February 26.
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.