On Police/Crime Published Elsewhere

Welcome to Florida. Beware of gunmen standing their ground

Protesters demonstrate at a rally for slain teenager Trayvon Martin on March 22, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee announced this past week he would temporarily step down amid fierce pressure from those who say his department botched the handling of the case.</p><br /><br /><br /><p>

The Miami Herald, March 25, 2012
Reprinted with permission.

Almost a quarter-century ago — in the halcyon days when human life was seen as more precious than property and people were regarded as something more than impoverished and non-influential corporations — I happened to be present at the tragic and needless shooting death of a black teenager.It was 1988 in Baltimore, Maryland and I was a journalist embedded in the city’s homicide unit, a bystander to a particular tragedy involving an elderly white homeowner and a black kid shot in the head while trying to steal a dirt bike.

As the kid crept from the homeowner’s rear yard with the bike, the old man stood in his rear window, raised a rifle, and shot the juvenile dead. He readily acknowledged that he had done so, noting that he had been a victim of prior thefts and that given his age, he saw no other way to stop the crime.After all, it was his son’s bike. And it was his home. And in shooting the teenager to death, he was protecting all of that. He was a kindly man, exceedingly polite to detectives and prosecutors, unfailingly sincere in his answers.

“Did you feel that you were in personal danger? When you fired the rifle, were you acting in self-defense?” asked the lead prosecutor.“

No,” replied the elderly gentleman.

“I feared that he was going to steal my son’s bike and get away with it. I’m tired of having stuff stolen.”

That long-ago case bears only slight resemblance to the horror show now taking place in Sanford, Florida. There, the victim, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was not trespassing on anyone’s property. Nor is there any reasonable indication — a trained law officer calls it “probable cause” — to suggest Martin was doing anything wrong, save for walking in public while black. And just as clearly, George Zimmerman, 28, was not defending his own property, or anyone else’s, when he shot Martin.

And yet a reading of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground”  law — and nearly 20 statutes enacted in other states under a template championed by gun advocates — suggests that the real difference between the two cases is even more fundamental:

The manslaughter — if not the murder — of Trayvon Martin may well be street legal. In its zeal to champion property owners and the gun lobby, the state of Florida — specifically its legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law — have created a legal hole through which the proverbial truck can be driven. Whether by ignorance or neglect, Florida’s leaders have created a world in which anyone can set their own personal standard for taking human life, provided they tell themselves they “reasonably” believe that in doing so they are responding to a potentially lethal threat.

It’s no wonder that professional law enforcement officials oppose these new laws. They are, at best, a license for any fool with a firearm to shoot anyone he decides to fear, and at worst, an invitation to murder.

Conservatives often argue that personal responsibility is the doctrine by which America will heal itself, and yet “Stand Your Ground” offers exactly the opposite. Rather than holding people accountable for taking human life and keeping the burden of proof on those citizens who choose to kill, the new standard requires society to prove that the taking of human life wasn’t necessary.

For American justice, this is not a brave new world. It’s an ugly one.

In practical terms, it’s true that we have, as a society, always accepted a stand-your-ground standard for our law officers — the men and women who are uniquely authorized by the state to take life as a matter of instant, personal deliberation. Every prosecutor understands that regardless of how much training an officer receives, and regardless of how experienced the officer, the decision to use lethal force is terrifyingly subjective. Decisions are made in an instant. Even good cops — well–trained and committed to using deadly force only in the necessary extremity — can, on occasion, produce a bad shoot.

For that reason, grand juries all across the country are told in the wake of a questionable police shooting: “If you believe that the officer thought his life, the lives of fellow officers, or the lives of citizens were in jeopardy, and if you can conclude that it was reasonable for the officer to so believe at the time — even if it turns out that he was wrong — then you should not indict the officer.”

Any more lax standard would give the men and women we charge with protecting society a carte blanche to kill without proper oversight; anything less would make them personally responsible and legally vulnerable for necessary, yet terrifying decisions that we ask them to make in seconds, under considerable duress.

But to grant private citizens — untrained, unsupervised, beholden only to their individual thoughts, biases and capabilities — the very same standards as we give sworn, trained law officers? To allow them to walk the streets and apply deadly force as they see fit, with only their own sense of their own reasonableness to guide them? Really?

The state of Florida and others like it have lost all sense.

That these laws sailed through legislatures and were signed by governors is indicative of a craven national culture, a panicked bunker mentality that now approaches the pathological. Despite becoming the most incarcerative society in the history of the planet, despite spending more and more of our national treasure on prisons and probation officers, drug courts and sentencing judges, despite the elimination of parole and the proliferation of mandatory sentencing, we are still ever more angry, ever more lethal, ever more afraid. Based on the scope and reach of our criminal justice system, Americans are now either the most evil people in modern history, or our view of ourselves, our neighbors and our national collective has been utterly corrupted by our own cowardice and rage.

William Blackstone, the great English jurist, argued famously that a true moral standard for our common law demands, from all of us, a principled, collective restraint: “Better that 10 guilty men escape punishment than that an innocent suffer.”

This is a legal ethos that goes back to the Old Testament, to Genesis itself and Abraham pleading to a just God: “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?” And God, of course, finding validity and honor in the argument, agrees to spare even a Sodom or a Gomorrah if a righteous minority might be found.

Not so in the gated communities of the great state of Florida. There, today, the possibility that some sneak thieves might escape with some color televisions, or car stereos, or stolen lawnmowers is counted as too great a price for our society to long endure. Better to shoot the odd, innocent teenager death on the street than to tolerate such an affront to American property rights.

All of us are debased by this. All of us — as Americans, as human beings — are simply worth less in this coarsened, brutish culture. Trayvon Martin was worth less, certainly — he was, by standards of the state of Florida, entirely expendable. And with these laws on the books, he will not be the last.

Now, for every case as unambiguous as this one — every case in which the gun-wielding assailant was, say, foolish enough to call police and provide evidentiary equivocations to dispatchers, or in which the victim left evidence of his own honest fears in a corroborated cell phone call to a girlfriend — there will be others in which someone simply walks up and shoots someone they dislike, or fear, or resent.

Now, by the grace of unthinking legislators and cynical governors, murderers can simply declare that they were in fear for their lives, or acting in self-defense, and, absent enough evidence to the contrary, investigators and prosecutors and jurors will be hard-pressed not to rule such thoughts and actions “reasonable” and therefore legal.

A quarter-century ago in Baltimore — a city contending with crime problems more profound than Sanford — a hard decision was made by law enforcement professionals serving a healthier, more courageous America. There and then, prosecutors looked at the case of a young man shot dead for the crime of theft, and they asserted for a society in which the taking of a human life is justifiable only in the most desperate extremity.

True, their suspect was an old man. True, he had been defending his property. And true, too, that prosecutors had no intention of seeing such a defendant incarcerated for his heedless use of lethal force, that they knew they would soon be negotiating with lawyers over a guilty plea and a term of probation for manslaughter. They didn’t want an old man in prison. But neither did they dare to send the wrong message, to suggest to all of us that there are acceptable reasons to kill, if indeed, you do not need to kill.

They charged the crime.

David Simon, a former police reporter with The Baltimore Sun, is the author of the non-fiction “Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets,” an account of a year following the detectives of his city’s homicide unit. He is also the producer of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme.”


  • As a Florida resident I got sick to death of hearing about this case all over national news while dozens of more salient things (y’know, like this endless oil war we are never gonna get out of) got swept under the rug. It is also notable to remind the masses that you never hear about the black-on-black crime which happens every day. It’s only when a white guy shoots a black guy that anyone bothers to take notice, only to be completely exploited by mainstream media which has been blackballed from reporting on anything major like our actual economy, foreign policy fuckups, and other stuff coming at us which is gonna tank us all within the next two decades.

    That being said, it is worth pointing out that while you, David, are very generous in drawing a distinction between police officers’ need to make split-second decisions to shoot versus the disaster that is private citizens doing the same, I assert that cops are not necessarily that much more qualified and the membrane between the two classes is very, very thin. If you refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s accounting in his book, Blink, there is the late 90’s shooting by a whole tribe of misguided police officers in the Bronx of an innocent man sitting on his stoop who, seeing the Fraternal Order of the Police (read: the biggest gang in New York) coming up on the poor guy like he was already a suspect for something, pulled his wallet out of his pocket. Before he could raise his hands, our fine brotherhood of public servants managed to discharge 41 shots into an innocent man, all because one officer in his “split-second decision making under duress” assumed the wallet was a gun. The tragedy is also immortalized in Bruce Springsteen’s song, “41 Shots.”

    All people operate with all kinds of subconscious machinery driving our conscious decisions, it is the nature of the human mind to do so. We think we do not have the biases that our variable common sense and intellects tell us we shouldn’t have, but at a deeper level experiences and messages that have absorbed themselves into the subcutaneous layers of our memories are at the wheel almost all of the time. Given the general systemic impotence of police departments across America, especially inner-city police departments, it is no surprise that these cops have made and do make the exact same tragic decisions that a civilian has made/will make again.

    One other point is that the mass media machine loves them a good racism story. Word on the streets as a resident one town off from Sanford, Florida is that Trayvon Martin WAS, in fact, up to some nefarious doings INCLUDING having actually physically attacked George Zimmerman and put him on the concrete, standing over him. But of course, THAT story wouldn’t get nearly as much play and Fox needs something to ramble on about in the absence of publishing actual content soooo…. Whitie V. Blackie it is, then.

    I don’t endorse people recklessly going around shooting people that, for their own reasons, they just “think need to be shot.” Neither do I endorse widespread bans on personal gun ownership, as I will never have enough faith in big government to support them disarming us. Too many things can go wrong with that, and I think we are too close to that possibility as it is. I also, as a white former victim of the southeast Washington D.C. race wars am damn fed up with people pulling the race card as soon as someone white does something to someone of any other color. But if you are looking for Florida to make sense, in general, it doesn’t. People move here for the weather and then stay because after a couple years we can’t imagine having to dig our cars out of the snow every morning again. Everything about Florida’s legal system is bass-ackwards. I mean, for chrissake, these idiots down here actually ELECTED then RE-elected JEB BUSH, the half-witted diabolical brother of the godawful Bush dynasty to BE THE GOVERNOR. Do the math, man. Come for the beaches but if you do, remember how to stand YOUR ground because this mess is as systemic as the Everglades are wet.

    • I find the what-about-black-people-killing-black-people meme to be disappointing, dishonest and dishonorable.

      1.) To bring it here, to this writer’s blog, is embarrassing presumption. I’ve spent a respectable chunk of my career chronicling the cost to people of color of our economic construct and our drug prohibition. To come here and cry that it gets no attention is arrogant and incorrect.


  • Sometimes while reading or hearing about cases like this i find myself speechless. The cruelty of the facts leaves me shaking. I can’t even imagine how someone is able to do such things to others. What other things there are which are more precious than a human life! Still many do not care. They value lifeless objects more than someone’s life. The thing that hurts me most in matters like these is that I couldn’t do anything to provide both sides with justice.

  • I’ve just discovered and read through the contents of your blog today, a fact of which I’m deeply disturbed about, but nevertheless I’m in my twenties, in the beginning years of my college education and really feel I lack a perspective to intellectually tangle with you at this point. My point is, I’ll be leaving a link or two on occassion but not saying much else:

    New Yorker article regarding America’s history of gun control:

    • It’s in your twenties when you should tangle with everyone regardless. Fuck all them old farts who messed up the world before you could even get to it. And give them no quarter until at least your thirtieth birthday.

  • Thank God someone with a platform said what I was thinking about this case. Obviously, that is why you have the platform because you can spell it out better than I could. Here is some Meta shit for you, though. This is just like season 5 as I am sure you realized.

    The Media, and I hate to write “The Media” as if it is some monolithic voice, tends more and more to miss the real issue…aka you can kill people if you feel threatened in 20 states. They missed it in the fictitious Baltimore Sun newsroom. Prop Joe is dead, but no mention that he was the biggest drug dealer on the east side of Bmore. Nope, they mentioned he was a owner of an appliance store. Farmer number 1, VC number 10. Nope, its the other way around. Unfortunately, this is the way of the current news/media culture/environment.
    Here I am on an island thinking that I am all alone until I found this blog. Thanks, I appreciate it.

      • As I said in the preamble to the posting, it’s okay for public officials in Baltimore not to like The Wire. They’re as entitled to an opinion as anyone. My responses are limited to those moments when city officials attempted to restrict access or prevent filming based on their criticism — i.e. pulling permits or threatening to do so, as the mayor once did, or passing a resolution against the show as a governing body, as the city council once considered. You don’t like it as an individual, no problem. You act on that opinion in your public capacity, problem.

        And with Commissioner Bealefeld, it was the demand for an apology and the charge of slander that required a response. Not his distaste.

  • “A quarter-century ago … law enforcement professionals serving a healthier, more courageous America”.

    OK, I’m going to go out an limb here and posit that a quarter century ago, in the Deep South (where this particular shooting occurred), a white man shooting a black youth enjoyed a much better chance of escaping prosecution and/or jail time than he would do today. I think that’s a pretty safe bet.

    The stand-your-ground laws are basically misguided. But do we have to endure the obligatory nostalgia for a “healthier” America that didn’t really exist? Blacks, gays, women, heck even “half-Hispanics” like Zimmerman … I don’t think these people think that America was “healthier” a quarter century ago.

    Especially not in Florida.

    • I’m pretty sure that comment was tongue-in-cheek. I’m aware that many writers have a problem with cliched obligatory nostalgia, but I highly doubt David Simon meant to invoke it seriously in this instance. He’s using irony to make the point: as little as 25 years ago it would be unthinkable for a prosecutor’s office not to charge someone who shot another without even the slightest justification.

      In fact in both the Corner and in Homicide David Simon notes that most police departments are much more civilized now than in the 70’s, let alone the 50’s and 60’s.

  • Regarding this statement : All of us are debased by this. All of us — as Americans, as human beings — are simply worth less in this coarsened, brutish culture. Trayvon Martin was worth less, certainly — he was, by standards of the state of Florida, entirely expendable. And with these laws on the books, he will not be the last.

    Trayvon was not even the first, according to the press conference of the prosecuting attorney. She indicated that a number of shootings that had been defended on the premise of this law had already been tried, some lost some won. But that there were any is the point.

    David S. is dead on right in his sadness, umbrage, and expectation that we have entered a new, even more ugly, era.

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