Trayvon Martin and the prejudices of the law enforcement establishment

There are few black families who don’t have a personal story about an unsettling encounter with the police, usually one involving male relatives. For all the encouraging — astonishing, really — racial progress over the last 50 years, the relationship between black Americans and white law enforcement officers remains fraught with fear, suspicion and, let’s face it, racial prejudice.

The deeply troubling case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot dead by a white Florida man claiming to be part of a neighborhood watch team, has brought those tensions vividly to the surface, reminding black folk that we don’t get the benefit of the doubt in our encounters with the criminal justice system. That remains true even if you’re a kid lying dead in the grass after you’ve done nothing — nothing — wrong.

That’s because too many law enforcement officers still harbor prejudices that live deep in their subconscious minds, where they record stereotypes, archive bad data and make snap judgments without any conscious thought. Those “implicit biases,” as researchers call them, are not easily dislodged by sensitivity training or diversity guidelines.

In the Martin case, many observers, including several Florida lawmakers and prosecutors, have pointed to problems inherent in the state’s notorious “Stand Your Ground” law, which has invited the violence-prone to claim innocence after provoking deadly confrontations. Even though the investigation is continuing, the law’s broad parameters may allow George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, to go unpunished.

But I’m equally disheartened by the failure of the Sanford, Fl. police to even arrest Zimmerman. I don’t know a single black person who believes that a black shooter in identical circumstances would not have been arrested and charged.

It would not have mattered if the black shooter were a PhD college professor at a nearby university or a petty criminal well-known to the police. He would have been arrested if he had killed an unarmed white teenager who was returning from a convenience store to the home where his father was visiting. The college professor may not have been convicted if he could afford a good attorney, but he would have been arrested.

That’s because police, like prosecutors, have a huge amount of discretion at their disposal, and they don’t treat black citizens with the same deference that they automatically — perhaps unconsciously — give to whites. We are troublemakers. We are suspects. We are criminals. See stereotypes, above.

Last week —  as calls for justice ricocheted around the country, gaining power — the Sanford City Council issued a “no confidence” vote in its police chief, who decided to “temporarily” step down. Meanwhile, however, City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., to whom the police report, issued a statement defending them — and straining credibility.

“According to Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time,” the statement said, The Washington Post reports.

That interpretation of the law is so far-fetched that it borders on outright dishonesty. As the Orlando Sentinel has reported, police officers in jurisdictions throughout central Florida have made arrests in several cases where the survivor claims self-defense. Moreover, two of the Florida lawmakers who crafted the law say Zimmerman should be arrested.

“Police are not allowed to make an arrest unless they have probable cause. There is supposed to be a legal reason, otherwise it’s an illegal arrest,” Willie Meggs, state attorney (prosecutor) for Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit, told me. (His circuit does not include Sanford.)

But when I asked Meggs if “probable cause” is a subjective judgment, he acknowledged as much: “Every day,” he said. In other words, there is no “prohibition” against arrest in the statute.

Prosecutors, too, have wide latitude in the cases they pursue — a discretion which benefits whites much more often than it does blacks. Among criminal justice experts, it’s well-known that prosecutors press cases against black defendants even as they drop similar charges against white defendants.

Many of those prosecutors would be gravely offended if they were accused of racism because they believe themselves to be fair and unbiased representatives of the criminal justice system.

Perhaps that’s the most depressing thing.

 

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Comments

  1. rico oria says:

    Dear Cynthia,
    As I read your words concerning the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin I stood back, so to speak, and asked myself what is Cynthia saying here? That law enforcement is prejudiced. That black men are treated unfairly by law enforcement. That the due process of law is based on the color of ones skin. And that the progress that America has made as a people in general regarding racial equality is not progress at all.
    George Zimmerman disregarded instructions given by law enforcement. It “seems”, at this point, that his actions were within the law. I for my part, as a responsible citizen, will wait on and respect due process of law. If it turns out that there has been an obstruction of justice in this case there is a due process for revealing that.
    Your blog, called journalism, is fanning the flames of prejudice and encourages distrust of law enforcement, white people and due process. How sad that you, an awarded citizen of this country, have become the very person that you are decrying………..a bigot.

  2. TJ says:

    even setting aside probable cause, why was Zimmerman allowed to keep evidence — especially the weapon in a homicide — or not charged/arrested now for providing false information amid an investigation regarding his record?

  3. Joel harris says:

    While the Martin case is a deeply troubling and tragic case there are many unanswered questions. Aside from the legal discussions, Ms. Tucker continues to demonstrate her own racial prejudices. Obama is half black yet is identified as our first black president. Tiger Woods is half black yet is identified as a black golfer. Why does she identify the half hispanic Zimmerman as a “white Florida man” except to reinforce her own prejudicial views?

    • rachel smith says:

      You know i was thinking the same thing in my head when the story first came out. Zimmerman is half hispanic and half white yet the media and the Martin family refer to him only as being (White)… Which makes it a white vs black conflict. Great points on the situations you pointed as well obama and tiger. This whole situation is just a mess the way everything gets so twisted and turned around. Like for instance why wasn’t Zimmerman arrested from day one I mean he did kill Trayvon. Why did NBC leave out the fact that it was the 911 dispatcher that asked the race of the suspect, Instead they made it seem like Zimmerman was being racist from the get go. And who cares whether Trayvon had a troubled childhood that still doesnt give Zimmerman the right to shoot and kill him. It’s a shame how can anyone ever think this world will extinct (racism) when we have situations like this and media sturring it up even more.

  4. Sedric Bogan says:

    US Attorneys are investigating the Memphis Juvenile Court System where black boys are charged harsher for the same violations.than any other group (there are already interim changes). I am concerned about the selection of the “Stand Your Ground Task Force” created by the Florida Governor. Of the 18, one is the black female Lt. Gov. of Florida. Who are the others?

    Sedric Bogan

    .

  5. Bruce Berry says:

    Every person whom stood up for Trayvon because they have more skin pigmentation than others is prejudice and posesses the same mental fault as they claim Mr. Zimmerman does.
    With little or no denial from Trayvon’s family to the claim that he punched a bus driver in the face because he did not want to pay the fare. This behavior is so off the wall, and indicates a violent person highly apt to be involved in more violence. It takes a very disassociated emotion to strike someone for just doing his job.
    Trayvon and Mr. Zimmerman with their faults in their own tragic unique situation reveals our society in general with Cythia’s comments. Cythia thinks her darker skin associates herself with some intangible mental bias against her in the minds of police everywhere. Please let me tell you the truth and believe it:
    Cythia you and Jesse Jackson have high jacked reality, Police just want to go home alive.
    50% of black males in Florida have been convicted of a felony.
    If I have done no crime why would I object to a police officer inspecting, inquirying, etc… I know he is trying to protect me and my family. It has happened and I don’t mind, I don’t claim bias, or foul.
    The same science that proves their are more differences between Cynthia’s DNA and her third cousin than between me and her cousin has also proven that reality is based on statistics and probability.
    If not then this computer would not work, no transister would work either.
    Based on reality Florida police have every right to be more cautious with young black males.
    Heres a great idea, let the police search and look until they get tired of finding nothing.
    Heres another, a black male with a foreign accent is given freepass once they speak. It has nothing to do with the skin, and everything to do with culture. Afro-american culture condones crime, proof:
    The two NY representatives that went into session wearing hoodies. Hoodies hide the face, the KKK wears hoodies to hide the face, the KKK are bad, Ghetto drug thugs are bad, hoodies are worn by bad people.
    Do not wear hoodies if you are already in a situation where others might suspect bad people would wear hoodies, ie: The ghetto at night. a 7/11 grocery store. etc…
    True story: I was 19 and went to Bourbon street in New Orleans, I had a fatigue jacket but it got hot, so I draped the the jacket over my shoulder walking down the street. a black man walking the other way punched me in the shoulder and said “You don’t wear that like that down here.” He was right, no one could see my right hand, did I have a gun? who would know? I took his advice, I believed, now take mine every one who associates as a so called “Black American”, don’t wear hoodies in the wrong time and place.
    Condemn pot smoking, (it funds dealers, bad guys by necessity) condemn all drugs, it makes people stupid and desparate, less competitive in the job market. Condemn anyone making associations, either good or bad based on skin color. There should be no “Black Community” groups, it certainly dosen’t sound good to have a “White Community” group does it? So long as people make false associations based on skin tone
    and then support criminal behavior or give freepass and license to do so based on that association then bad behavior will continue. If I were Black and was convinced of this intangible bias against blacks then first I would realize that my belief in this bias could become a crutch for all my faults and failures, then I would realize that my belief could create the very bias in others soley because I alienated myself by expressing my reverse bias first. If I truely believed there was bias then I would become extremely hard on those I associated with to up hold the law and support behavior that was good and do everything I could to stomp on black criminal behavior, ie: Jesse Jackson should belong to the Angels in NY city and take a bite out of crime in Harlem. White people dont care about black people they care about black crime.
    Heres a true relevation for you: white people dont care about white people, they just try to survive.
    We are all on our own, work for yourself, pay your own way. independence, its not my neighbors problem if I fall down, i may end up emotionally bonded to him if he picks me up, but it is by goodwill on his part only.
    Not by force, and he is not bad or evil if he sees me down and chooses to move on to take care of himself.
    Grow up, the world owes you nothing, work, pay your own way, if tragedy befalls you, take it with grace, do not pull others into the malestrom. I think Cynthia you have built your career based trying to get people to listen to intangible ideas based on some great community that somehow cares about the plight and injustices of a group you associate yourself with because at some point in your life you experienced similar biases and hate from others. You want to validate the treatment was not due to you as a person but was caused by a mental/emotional fault of the other. Its pointless and unprofitable unless you want to end up as a sensationalist instigator like Rev. Jackson. or Faracon. People hurt you with prejudice, ok, you hated it, ok, now what? perpetuate the issue, the negativity by claiming prejudice killed Trayvon?
    Trayvon died because Zimmerman thought he was a criminal and because a young 17 year old reacted like a crimminal. Zimmerman thought he was a criminal because Trayvon wore a hoodie that concealed his face, and was black and outside at night in a community that had high relative crime. Any rational person claiming they would have not had this thought run threw their mind is lying. 2. if you want to die soon, start punching people you dont know in the face. My point is the so called black community, including Trayvons family should condemn Trayvon’s behavior, tell black youth: “Get bad grades, be violent, drugs, etc and you die!” If my son ever punched a bus driver, he would one apolgize to that driver in person, he would apologize to every person on that bus, every bus driver in that city, every manager in that bus company. He would get it in his head that behavior is the lowest most reprehensible thing. Then he would mow that bus drivers lawn for a year, make his life a little easier. But you see that may be the issue, Trayvon didn’t have the parenting to step up, step in and real take control when he went off track.
    The Black community has got to quit coddling their youth, themselves, yes prejudice hurts but feeling sorry for yourself does not help. Prejudice in the south had nothing to do with skin color, it had everything to do with money, convince someone their labors are worth less to increase profits. thats it. Farming cotton.
    period. There never was and never will be any tangible reason to lessen another person due to physical attributes. Some elite Athletes suck because they get the idea that they are better because they are stronger or faster. They arent better their attitude just sucks. Skin color does not matter, the bias and reverse bias you try to perpetuate in others does matter, it screws them up because it is not reality.
    Cytnia you suck.

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