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The Trayvon Martin Case Foreshadowed An Increase in Police Homicides of Minorities

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With the recent decisions of no indictment involving the police officers responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford to name a few, America could not be anymore divided in how we analyze these events through our own filters. Current poll data articulates that 65% of minorities believe there is a racial construct within our police and legal system which disproportionately affects minorities while reporting the opposite belief by White Americans at roughly the same percentage.

However, I would challenge future pollsters to parse out additional data on party affiliation when polling White Americans because it is my the over polling of conservative white Americans may create a skewed and unfair depiction of White America. Before we can develop solutions and move forward, we must first define the problem and acknowledge the symptoms in order to design and implement interventions to reduce risks. However, this process proves to be even more difficult due to our inability to discuss racial issues in a country whose prosperity and place in this world was made possible as a result of racial injustice.

252311-masked-french-special-unit-policemen-leave-after-the-assault-to-capturIt’s been almost three years since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the relevance of his death could not be more apparent today. I remember one of my white friends asking me “Why Trayvon Martin…what so special about him”? I didn’t take offense to the question because I knew it was coming from a place of “I really don’t understand, and I want to know what you think”. Translation: What is the significance of his death, and why is it so important to you?

I reflect on Trayvon’s death because it foreshadowed a future that struck fear into many black families across the nation. George Zimmerman, a man with no police authority and no legal right to follow or detain anyone, established a legal precedent lowering the bar of jurisprudence in the killing of a minority. Despite illegally following Trayvon with a firearm, Travyon was denied the right to fear for and defend his life as any other reasonable person would do.

In past case law, the reasonable person test is the standard applied when looking at the actions of a suspect or victim in self defense cases which asks the question “what would a reasonable person do under the same set of circumstances”. However, this standard was was not applied to Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman. In review of the facts, it would be reasonable to conclude that any person being followed by a stranger at night, first by vehicle then on foot, on their way home would fear for his/her life, and they should retain the right to defend his/her life as provided by law. I can only imagine the fear Trayvon felt wondering if he maybe leading a murder, rapists, or pedophile to his family’s home. Also, this case changed the trajectory of how police departments and prosecutors would respond to future cases demanding legal action as a result of public outcry. Without public protest, there would not have been a trial for a non-law enforcement/private citizen who killed another American citizen, and the bar is becoming even lower for seeking indictments in the rise of police involved homicides of unarmed minority American citizens.

The Trayvon Martin case came with a scary realization for many minority families. If a regular citizen with no police authority can gun down an unarmed person, what will this mean for minority interactions with the police? The Trayvon Martin case also set a new legal standard for the victim by establishing the good black person versus the criminal black person. Basically, if you are a criminal, have a criminal record, history of drug abuse or drugs in your systems essentially the police or anyone with presumed credibility can come to your home, neighborhood, work or retail store and shoot you dead with no questions asked.

The killer only has to articulate they feared for their life or that the dead victim threatened them. For some reason, the killers in these situations are not drug tested or histories released unlike the victim who can no longer speak or defend themselves. It appears one can murder without fear of having a trial and can be cleared by their local police department who may choose not to preserve any evidence on the slim chance there maybe a trial.

The media attention of the Trayvon Martin case and his treatment as a victim publicly exposed the persistent racial divisions between black and white America. If you can honestly substitute a white woman, a white man, or yourself as a place holder for “what appeared to be a big black man” describing Trayvon, proceed to add back in George Zimmerman following you in his car, then following you on foot with a gun, and still arrive at the same conclusion, then race is not a factor in how you analyze events.

Supporters of Officer Darren Wilson view Mike Brown as the antithesis of Trayvon Martin, and they argue Brown was a violent criminal seen on camera being threatening toward another minority then attacked a police officer inside of his patrol car. Let’s say for the sake of argument this version of events is true. The question we should be asking is whether Darren Wilson used deadly force on an unarmed fleeing suspect once his safety was no longer being threatened. After Brown fled from the police car, what actions could Darren Wilson have taken to apprehend the suspect and minimize the loss of life as well as the potential loss of life of bystanders from shooting a hail of bullets?

Police officers do not have the authority to shoot fleeing suspects who are not in the act of harming another person despite what prosecutors lead the grand jury to believe. There is a fleeing felon law provision which exist only for the Bureau of Prisons in apprehending escaped convicts. Police officers with proper training would have call for back-up, set-up a perimeter, called in the K-9  units to track the suspect, put out a city wide alert with description of the fleeing subject, and followed in his police vehicle to keep a visual of the suspect.

In this case, Officer Wilson was unaware of Mike Browns’ involvement at the convenient store, and his involvement resulted from Brown walking in the street. Police officers possess the ability to obtain warrants for a crime based on a suspects physical description and clothing without having a name. Officers are trained not to go on a lone pursuit after a suspect because it increases the risks of your safety being compromised. There were many tools and options at Darren Wilson’s disposal as police officer other than exiting his vehicle and immediately begin shooting at a fleeing suspect. What if one of the stray bullets killed an innocent bystander?

An officer who can not do a risk assessment under pressure and cycle through the options at their disposal should not be a police officer. Retreating, surveying the scene, and calling for additional back-up are all options available to officers who want to minimize risks to their own life and the loss of life for others. Officers jumping out of their vehicles without arriving at a safe distance to assess the scene with guns blazing fail to take measures to minimize risks to themselves and others. In my opinion, Darren Wilson was not operating in effort to apprehend a suspect because he had already chosen to use deadly force before exiting his vehicle. Officers are not trained to wound when they pull their service weapon because they are trained to kill, and this tells me that Officer Wilson had already decided he was going to kill Mike Brown when he fired the first shot.

This case has become about what Mike Brown did to cause his death instead of whether Darren Wilson followed police procedure, whether the evidence corroborated his account after exiting his vehicle, and whether his actions were consistent with the discharge of his duties under the law and departmental policy. Instead, the prosecutors’ office focused largely on Darren Wilson’s account and eye witness testimony while leaving out pesky items such as forensic evidence and police protocol.

Did Wilson call out his stop of Brown and his friend to dispatch? Did Wilson have any communication with dispatch prior to Brown’s death? Where is the radio traffic and 911 recordings for the time of the incident? Where is Darren Wilson’s text messages and call logs following Brown’s death? Where were the shell casings found? Did he reload his weapon?

In other cases such as with John Crawford and Eric Garner where there is video evidence disputing initial reports by the police, officers in these cases still escaped a grand jury indictment. George Zimmerman’s exoneration from murder has set the standard so low that it will be virtually impossible to prosecute a law enforcement officer with a history of abuse of authority and use of force who kills an unarmed citizen.

The prevailing arguments give the impression that the police should not be questioned because they are charged with protecting us or officer safety is an automatic defense that does not need to be corroborated by evidence and police protocol. Many Americans who do not see the institutional racism and constructs disproportionately affecting minorities either are unaware, want to ignore, or want to rewrite the American history documenting the utilization of police and the criminal justice system by the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) to harm black Americans.

According to documents on PBS,

The Klan grew quickly and became a terrorist organization. It attracted former Civil War generals such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famed cavalry commander whose soldiers murdered captured black troops at Fort Pillow. The Klan spread beyond Tennessee to every state in the South and included mayors, judges, and sheriffs as well as common criminals. The Klan systematically murdered black politicians and political leaders. It beat, whipped, and murdered thousands, and intimidated tens of thousands of others from voting. Read More

In the past, society was able to develop interventions because there was the acknowledgment of racial bias operating within our criminal justice system. What makes current times even more scary is the argument that we are in a post-racial society while dismissing the existence of racists and racial bias within police department and our legal systems across the country. Failure to implement measures, safeguards, and consequences within these systems will result in more loss of freedom and life that will disproportionately affect minorities. With the advent of for-profit prisons who are suing States for failure to maintain full capacity of their prisons, the current racially biased system is further incentivized to maintaining the status quo and resist change.

There is no doubt that progress has been made because black Americans no longer fear death for stating one’s opinion. However, progress is not an event rather than a continuum in which we must stay the course. We must always strive to be diligent in our assessment, reassessment, collection of data as well as establishment of benchmarks to prevent making the same mistakes of our tainted past. Even if you believe there is no racial construct within our police and criminal justice systems, you should still be advocating for the institution of measures to prevent it.

The poor collection of data on use of force, abuse of authority, citizen complaints, and mapping of high risk areas using GIS technology should be a priority in order to implement effective interventions that protect both citizens and officers. Body cameras are a great intervention tool to help protect both the officer and citizens in their interactions with the police, but it will also be ineffective if body cameras are not being used in the departments with the highest rates of incidents and complaints.

Deona Hooper, MSW is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, and she has experience in nonprofit communications, tech development and social media consulting. Deona has a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Management and Community Practice as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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