"When seconds count, the police are only minutes away."
The Sanford, Florida Treyvon Martin tragedy highlights several inescapable facts of law enforcement. Like them or not, agree or disagree, as members of a dynamic, complex and free society it is essential that people have some understanding of several key aspects of what is surely a difficult situation. One need not know anything beyond the basics, which are, as I understand them:
Treyvon Martin left a home to get candy and ice tea. Along the way George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood patrolman (nothing I've read discusses any formal training) encountered Martin and deemed him suspicious. Zimmerman called 911, but at some point a confrontation ensued. Zimmerman suffered minor injuries, and he shot Martin to death. As of today, no charges have been brought by local law enforcement.
Three factors are at work, again not requiring anything other than the above facts:
1) Local law enforcement must follow the laws written - as written - by state and local legislative bodies. If the Martin shooting falls within the "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida then it is a violation of Zimmerman's civil rights to prosecute him. No amount of protesting, anguishing or grandstanding changes that. Court after court has, often with great regret, announced this all over the country. Here in Colorado a respected DA flew to another state to advise the family that a grand jury had declined charges in a roughly similar situation, based on a self-defense theory. He didn't much like it, politics played no role (he's an elected official doing the right thing by people who can't vote for him) but it was what the law prescribed. But, these situations are especially fact-sensitive, which means:
2) The extremely vast majority of police officers in the United States approach a situation such as the Martin shooting with only one aim in mind - getting it right. Nothing else matters. Each tiny piece of evidence has to be sifted over, every nuance weighed. One minute fact can have a profound effect on the outcome of an investigation. In addition, major scenes, such as a death investigation, draw the attention of multiple layers of the justice system. The number of people who weigh in on a homicide inquiry (defined as a human/human killing. A murder is a homicide without legal justification - that's the law in my state) is breathtaking, with everyone asking the same question - do we have this right? Two people know what happened in that brief encounter on a Florida evening. Everyone standing at that death scene trying to put the pieces together knew they were fighting to give Treyvon Martin's version justice, because he could not do it himself.
3) Provoking armed confrontations with suspicious individuals is a job for trained professionals. In my organization a police officer has - a bachelor's degree; been subjected to multiple interviews, tests and background investigations before entering the police academy; undergoes 8 months of intense training involving almost 900 hours of classroom instruction (including the legal definitions of suspicious) and weekly tests, 14 weeks of field training with verbal debriefing after every call and written evaluation after every shift and that's just to win the title of useless rookie. An untrained person who defends themselves from attack is exercising a god-given right. If that same person, with no authority or training to do so, presumes to confront a young man minding his own business....
This may not be the worst time, if only to honor the memory of an apparently decent young man, for even-tempered, sober men and women to review the laws of their states to ensure that nothing encourages similar situations. For the rest of us - for once I join President Obama. Can anyone imagine the anguish of Treyvon Martin's family? I can't.
I don't ever want to. Unfortunately, at a crossroads moment for both of these men when seconds counted, the professional men and women who might have stopped this were only minutes away.