The “Shoot the People You Find Frightening” Laws

Before some Democratic members of Congress this week the parents of young Trayvon Martin asked that his death be “not in vain.”  I thought about what might make this so.

Justice demands an indictment on homicide charges from the grand jury.  It demands trying George Zimmerman in a court of law. Justice demands that a jury make an honest assessment of the lawfulness of his actions in the killing of a child.  Beyond that, though, I believe the brutal killing of young Mr. Martin has to make us focus on the profound racial fear and mistrust codified in the so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws.  These laws express the worst in us as individuals, as a civil society and as ethical communities.  They are Shoot the People You Find Frightening laws.

Let’s stop the movement towards enacting them.  This is where young Trayvon Martin’s  death can achieve the meaning his grieving parents seek.

That said, however, this is not where the issue is going at this time.  In our outrage we seem to have lost our bearings.  The other day the Boston Globe ran an op-ed by a man who recounted genuinely shitty treatment he received based on his youth and race (Black) at the hands of Chicago police officers. I see how folks are conflating historic police conduct with the police decisions in Florida.   But I believe they are exactly wrong to do so.

A little on the cops and then back to the main point: the SYG/SPYFF laws.

The line cops — this includes patrol officers and detectives — in Sanford, Florida did the right things correctly in my view.  It appears from the incident report that they took the shooter into custody on charges of homicide and manslaughter.

But the chief needs to go back to criminal justice leadership school. The chief seems to have implied that Florida’s SYG statute made it unlawful for him to hold the shooter on those charges.  The chief told us all about the technical nature of the law and criminal procedure in Florida.  He makes me wonder if he had concluded unconsciously that Mr. Martin was the aggressor and the shooter was the one with the right to “stand his ground.”     THE SHOOTER CARRIED A 9 MM. SEMI-AUTOMATIC HANDGUN THAT HE HAD JUST FIRED.  The kid carried a can of tonic and a candy bar.

Given the gravity of the situation, the chief might have held Mr. Zimmerman.  State’s attorney or no state’s attorney an innocent child lay dead on the pavement.  They had Zimmerman in cuffs.  And I’ll bet dollars to donuts the police had something to hold him on that night.  They might at least have inconvenienced the shooter for awhile.  The brass only had to listen to their own 9-1-1 tapes to get a sense of how wrong the situation was and is.

Dispatcher: “Are you following him.”
Zimmerman: “Yes”
Dispatcher: “OK, we don’t need you to do that.”

The dispatcher’s statement was code for ‘this is no way to run a civil society.’  The following is an excerpt from the Florida SYG law that displays the state government’s idea of a sane, ethical and civil way to run a society.

“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
–  From Chapter 776 of the Florida general laws.

How many Americans know the definition of a felony?  What does “forcible” mean under the law?  How many of us have ever seen a “forcible felony” in progress?  Very few.  You are more likely to have seen one if you are Black and live in a segregated neighborhood but still a small percentage will have seen one.  Most people would not know a felony if they saw it.  Unlike TV, the music does not cue us to tell us one is coming.   Know how often the typical cop, who spends 8 hours a day looking all over town for such things, sees an armed robbery in progress?  Once every 14 years.  That is one and one-half, maybe two, times per career.  Felony, my butt. Such laws are in fact and deed Shoot the People You Find Frightening laws.

In my uneducated and unlicensed legal opinion, the only person permitted under Florida law to use deadly force in the Trayvon Martin tragedy was Trayvon Martin. What was Mr. Martin’s activity?  Walking on the sidewalk.  What was Mr. Zimmerman’s activity? Driving around with a loaded firearm looking for people to confront and then threatening and finally killing Mr. Martin.  Trayvon Martin’s is the only one whose alleged behavior is consonant with Chapter 776.

The shooter may say in court that the people he was seeking to attack were to be criminals looking for an opportunity to commit crimes, but he had no knowledge, competency or skill to determine who, as in the case of the late Mr. Martin, was walking to a parent’s home and who was up to no good.  We know this because the proof is in the pudding: he threatened and killed a person in the former category.

The fear and hate encoded in the stand your ground law remains the root of this tragedy.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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