The alleged shooting death of a Florida youth by a citizen watch volunteer has officially crossed over from tragedy to spectacle.
Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-0ld African-American, was reportedly shot after being confronted by Robert Zimmerman, an armed resident voluntarily patrolling the gated community in Sanford. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense, but the 911 tape and excerpts from Martin’s last phone conversation suggest otherwise.
As a result, Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, is currently hosting an armada of civil rights tourists, including the NAACP, the ACLU, the National of Islam and the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights. The swelling numbers have also attracted hordes of media as well as local and state policitians. It may not be Disney, but it is a circus.
Nevertheless, many fair questions are being asked of this shooting: Was race an issue? Was self-defense involved? Was the new Florida “Stand Your Ground” law a factor? Was Zimmerman acting in the capacity of law enforcement?
The answers may be frustrating for a while, because it may be difficult to prove racist motivations in Zimmerman’s actions, even if such exist. And without eye-witnesses, we may never know exactly how the last few seconds of Trayvon Martin’s life played out. As for Florida’s 2005 law, its stated purpose permits residents to use deadly force if a person “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm…or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” That standard contains no language capable of stretching to cover the unreasonable situation of shooting a person without such reasonable fear.
So what do we know? We know that Zimmerman, a volunteer on neighborhood watch, was not acting as a police officer.
In this particular incident, Zimmerman was perhaps many things: a self-important busy-body; a wannabe cop with self-esteem issues; an angry individual with a twisted sense of right on his side. That much could be surmised from the 911 tapes. When the emergency center call receiver directed Zimmerman to stop following the young black male he considered suspicious, he continued to do so. If he had followed that simple directive, had Zimmerman chosen the better part of discretion, then it seems clear that there would have been no shooting, no death, and no public outcry.
The exact circumstances leading to this shooting may not be known, but scenarios such as these play out every minute of every day on the streets of our country. In each case police officers must make decisions about the motivations, mindset, and physical capabilities of individuals whom they contact. From almost the first day at the academy until the last training session in their careers, cops have to stay abreast of the law regarding the detention of individuals; they must practice non-lethal defensive tactics and maintain currency on their defensive tools, such as pepper spray, batons, Tasers and firearms; they must also continually exercise the judgment portion of their mind in order to make split-second decisions on the use of force in situations that juries will be able to handle at their leisure.
The fact remains that using force, deadly or otherwise, is a difficult choice. In the academy, recruits are put through “mock scenes,” so called because these true-to-life training sessions are conducted in a sterile situation with actors and practice weapons. Nobody gets hurt. Nobody dies. The students learn from their mistakes, and they sure do make a lot of them.
I was one of those students many years ago, and I made many mistakes in training. Those mistakes have given myself and other cops a healthy understanding of the best methods, the do’s and don’ts regarding situations such as George Zimmerman insinuated himself last month. When he allegedly chose to pull the trigger, what frame of reference did this self-appointed security guard use to guide his actions? For the record, righteous indignation doesn’t count.
Perhaps it is too soon to put all of this on George Zimmerman’s shoulders, because there is so much we don’t know. We do know that, with the police on the phone in one hand and a gun in the other, Zimmerman chose the gun.
If that turns out to have been the wrong choice, then the civil rights circus will – and should – have a field day.