Saturday, March 31, 2012

That's the Story

While Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and elsewhere have come under fire (not entirely undeserved) in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, it seems to me that there are three other factors at work here, and it is their intersection where the trouble lies. The three culprits are jumping to conclusions, discretion and covering one's ass. These are surprisingly common. So much so, perhaps, that we really don't pay much attention to them.

Just to get it out the way, let's stipulate that George Zimmerman is being less than completely honest with his version of events. This shouldn't come as a surprise. There don't seem to be any eyewitnesses to the whole event, the other interested party can't contradict his version of events and a slightly different understanding of what happened could land him behind bars for a few years. While Zimmerman may, in fact, be entirely on the up and up, my personal philosophy of "never take someone at face value when you understand that the have a reason to lie to you," tells me to be skeptical.

According to the city manager of Sanford, Florida, Zimmerman was not arrested the night that he shot Trayvon Martin because: “By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.” (Emphasis his.) This is almost certainly flatly incorrect. But it is likely that for one reason or another, they wanted to believe his version of events. And this has nothing to do with Florida. When I was training to be a security guard for a summer job back in college, our instructor (who loved to go off on tangents) basically mapped out for us best way to shoot someone dead in our homes and not be charged for it - in a nutshell: create a plausible self-defense scenario. Law enforcement, we were told, would want to believe us, and so giving them reasons to was a viable strategy.

This works because law enforcement agencies often have fairly broad discretion in whether or not to go forward with a case. There isn't an iron-clad handbook that details, for any given circumstance where a crime may have been committed, whether or not Probable Cause for arrest exists. Police Officers are no less individuals than anyone else, and what looks mightily suspicious to one may be completely normal to another. And even though it's a fairly low standard, not everything reaches it. By the same token, an anonymous leaker is said to have told ABC news that the state attorney's office said that there wasn't enough evidence to secure a conviction, and so they instructed an officer who was suspicious of Zimmerman's story not to pursue the case any further.

And this normally works - but when it doesn't, the wagons start circling. Police work depends on a certain level of trust from the community, and so police agencies often become alarmed at anything that might erode that trust. Such as the suggestion that they made a mistake in judgement, or exercised their discretion a bit too broadly. Which takes us back to the city manager's statement, which is clearly designed to let the police off the hook by implying that the way Florida statute was written, that law enforcement was simply doing what they had to.

Discretion on the part of law enforcement is nearly a necessity. It doesn't take long for things to go off the rails when that description is taken away. Every so often another absurd story comes along where a lack of discretion on the part of law enforcement leads to everyone looking like idiots. And as for people jumping to conclusions and covering their asses; you're more likely to stop tomorrow's sunrise than you are to ever eradicate them from human nature. So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with the realization that what happened to Trayvon Martin isn't unique, and that we can't rely on national outcry to put an end to it. Instead, we're going to have to keep a more watchful eye on the watchmen. Which isn't a new idea. Although really taking it seriously might be.

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