It seems the grieving family of Trayvon Martin, the slain 17-year-old whose killer has thus far gone free due to a claim of self-defense, may get some justice. The US Department of Justice announced today that it will investigate the killing and the local police's bumbling investigation into the crime.
But we still need to talk about the conditions under which this crime took place. Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, even though the 911 operator Zimmerman had called to report Martin’s “suspiciousness” told him not to pursue. The law that may have emboldened Zimmerman, and that has most definitely shielded him from proper prosecution, is referred to as Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Passed in 2005, it kicked off a wave of similar legislation across the country that expanded the rights of civilians who use lethal force in self-defense, undoing the former requirement that they retreat from confrontation when possible. And as Liliana Segura reported in 2008, “The new laws are particularly expansive in that they go beyond the boundaries of private homes to include cars, workplaces or anywhere else a person may feel threatened.” Months after Florida passed its bill, similar legislation was proposed in more than twenty states.
At the time, a critic warned the law could “turn Florida into the OK Corral,” Segura reported. And that warning has played out. Martin was not the first victim of cowboy-esque figures taking the law into their own hands. Segura reported the case of 61-year-old Texan Joe Horn, who saw a pair of black men on a neighbor’s property and, out of frustration that law enforcement wouldn’t arrive in time, went outside and shot them both, once again against the desires of the 911 operator. As he said in the call transcript, “I ain’t letting them get away with this shit.”
Echoes of that sentiment can be heard in the 911 transcript of Zimmerman’s call. Before getting out of his car and taking matters into his own hands, he says, “They always get away.”
“Stand your ground” laws, and the sentiments expressed by these two men who made use of them, stem from a deep distrust in the police force. Neither man thought the police could adequately handle the situations they witnessed. Both decided they, individual actors, could better take care of matters. And this distrust is a symptom of the deep suspicion of government that runs through our society. It’s part of the notion that citizens can get things done better than our governmental entities can. But as the killing of Trayvon Martin shows so clearly and horrifically, that’s just not the case.
Beyond emboldening individual actors, this distrust has real consequences on police forces’ ability to ensure protection and justice. It weakens and distorts the force itself. This American Life’s Sarah Koenig recently reported on Trenton, New Jersey, which has suffered a huge number of police layoffs as part of Governor Christie’s cuts to the public workforce. And his focus on the police is backed up by city-dwellers. In explaining why one resident didn’t feel he should pay higher taxes to bring back police, he said, “I think these police officers, they’re rude, they’re ignorant, they’re not friendly.” These cuts have had a huge impact on the force: crime has skyrocketed—gun assaults, for example, are up 76 percent—and whole units, like the one for domestic violence, have been shuttered.
As I wrote last week, cutting police budgets—a widespread trend in the face of crushed state and local budgets—has very real consequences on many forces’ priorities. Nearly 10 percent of departments have stopped responding to car thefts and burglar alarms. Many violent crimes, like domestic abuse, are going unaddressed. But drug enforcement has been on the rise, at least in part because those arrests bring in money. Starving police departments of funding creates a Catch-22 in which we just keep making them less effective, lowering their value in the eyes of citizens.
Of course, it’s not just fiscal conservatives who distrust the police. Minority groups, long targeted and harassed by police departments, have a right to feel betrayed. And the racial aspects involved in the Sanford police force’s decision to let Zimmerman go have been well covered. Our police force is anything but perfect.
Yet the alternative, as embodied in Zimmerman and Horn, is far, far worse. Whether or not we’re doing it well, policing and protecting citizens is a job only the government can do. Vigilante justice will never be real justice. As is clear from Zimmerman’s fixation on young black men and his itch to report them, the personal prejudices carried by the people who decide to take up arms against their fellow Americans end up holding huge weight—leading to unnecessary deaths like Martin’s. Far better to have an institution perform this role, as much as it may still be replicating systemic discrimination, that can be held accountable. All we can do is jail Zimmerman; we can enact much larger reforms when the police stray from their mission.
The answer to a police force that is slow to respond, has the wrong priorities, or replicates racism is not to abolish it and put the law in the hands of individuals. The answer to an ineffective government is not to do away with it. The answer can only be reform. Because we can’t put these matters in private hands. Our collective safety and justice can only be insured by the government. We can only hope that Travyon Martin’s family will experience some of the justice that was denied to their son.