I was enduring a day-long training class this past week when the instructor made a comment that made me sit up straight. “Denial,” he said, “is a defense mechanism that kicks in when a person rejects what is true, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
It’s not often that the words of Sigmund Freud get tossed around in police circles. It was a lesson for the cops in the room that if we ignore obvious information just because it is sudden or unpleasant (such as the sudden appearance of a weapon in the hands of an unlikely opponent), bad things will follow.
The discussion of denial also reminded me of two recent police investigations: the death of Trayvon Martin and the disappearance of Susan Powell. These cases, investigated respectively by the Sanford Police Department in Florida and the West Valley City Police Department in Utah, bear little resemblance to each other. Nevertheless, in both examples the media has drawn a large target around these departments for their reluctance to arrest their respective suspects, George Zimmerman and Joshua Powell.
I was an early proponent of West Valley City detectives, whose exhaustive efforts included searching a large swath of desert for any sign of Susan Powell. I was also quick to point out that, civil rights allegations aside, Sanford police were showing proper restraint by not arresting Zimmerman without sufficient probable cause.
As the saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Denial may have prompted my words of support for Utah investigators, despite my ignorance of the mountain of evidence pointing at Josh Powell’s guilt. It may also have been in play when I deferred to former Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee’s statement that there was simply insufficient probable cause to arrest George Zimmerman.
I am a passionate advocate for my brothers and sisters in law enforcement. In this column I try hard to separate that bias, but let’s face it – sometimes our core beliefs cling too tightly. That is, however, beside the point. The source of the denial (no pun intended) that clouded my perception of these events has a more basic origin.
I simply found it hard to believe there was sufficent evidence to arrest either Powell or Zimmerman because cops want to arrest bad guys.
If you were to ask a police officer why he or she chose law enforcement as a profession, you could quickly distill the answers into a singular imperative: to help people. That answer would come from academy cadets on their first day (though with a large dose of naivete) and be echoed by veteran officers on the downhill side of their careers (though with a dose of cynicism). Cops walk that walk in many ways, but none are as primal as the action of arresting criminals.
The gratification of making a solid probable cause arrest is, however, sometimes short-lived. The next threshold, beyond a reasonable doubt, is more demanding and can only be crossed by prosecutors. Since they are carrying that responsibility, the decision to charge is theirs alone. Getting a rejection slip, or case denial (there’s that word again), is a frustrating experience for police investigators. It is also a normal occurrence.
In fact, the anticipation of a prosecutorial denial might well be the reason police in both West Valley City and Sanford each chose not to make an arrest. Charging guidelines can differ greatly (between counties as well as states), but seasoned detectives are well versed in the limitations imposed by their respective prosecutors. This, I argued, was a factor largely unknown to the general public.
That was the mindset that prompted me to discount race as an issue for the Sanford Police Department. It was also a reason for assuming West Valley City police were laboring towards the threshold of probable cause, though in reality that threshold was already fading in their rear view mirror.
In light of this realization, I must admit that I don’t know why a special prosecutor was needed to force Sanford police officers to arrest George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s death. I’m also not sure why West Valley City cops didn’t book Powell into jail two years ago. But I can’t keep denying the fact that the individual reasons each department has given may in fact be deeply flawed.
It is too early to say which way these disparate cases will go, but one thing is certain – George Zimmerman will have to defend his actions in court. It is a tragic misfortune that Josh Powell will not.