There are few black families who don’t have a personal story about an unsettling encounter with the police, usually one involving male relatives. For all the encouraging — astonishing, really — racial progress over the last 50 years, the relationship between black Americans and white law enforcement officers remains fraught with fear, suspicion and, let’s face it, racial prejudice.
The deeply troubling case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot dead by a white Florida man claiming to be part of a neighborhood watch team, has brought those tensions vividly to the surface, reminding black folk that we don’t get the benefit of the doubt in our encounters with the criminal justice system. That remains true even if you’re a kid lying dead in the grass after you’ve done nothing — nothing — wrong.
That’s because too many law enforcement officers still harbor prejudices that live deep in their subconscious minds, where they record stereotypes, archive bad data and make snap judgments without any conscious thought. Those “implicit biases,” as researchers call them, are not easily dislodged by sensitivity training or diversity guidelines.
In the Martin case, many observers, including several Florida lawmakers and prosecutors, have pointed to problems inherent in the state’s notorious “Stand Your Ground” law, which has invited the violence-prone to claim innocence after provoking deadly confrontations. Even though the investigation is continuing, the law’s broad parameters may allow George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, to go unpunished.
But I’m equally disheartened by the failure of the Sanford, Fla., police to even arrest Zimmerman. I don’t know a single black person who believes that a black shooter in identical circumstances would not have been arrested and charged.
It would not have mattered if the black shooter were a Ph.D. college professor at a nearby university or a petty criminal well-known to the police. He would have been arrested if he had killed an unarmed white teenager who was returning from a convenience store to the home where his father was visiting. The college professor may not have been convicted if he could afford a good attorney, but he would have been arrested.
That’s because police, like prosecutors, have a huge amount of discretion at their disposal, and they don’t treat black citizens with the same deference that they automatically — perhaps unconsciously — give to whites. We are troublemakers. We are suspects. We are criminals. See stereotypes, above.
Last week, as calls for justice ricocheted around the country, gaining power, the Sanford City Council issued a “no confidence” vote in its police chief, who decided to “temporarily” step down. Meanwhile, however, City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., to whom the police report, issued a statement defending them — and straining credibility.
“According to Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time,” the statement said, according to The Washington Post.
That interpretation of the law is so far-fetched that it borders on outright dishonesty. As the Orlando Sentinel has reported, police officers in jurisdictions throughout central Florida have made arrests in several cases where the survivor claims self-defense. Moreover, two of the Florida lawmakers who crafted the law say Zimmerman should be arrested.
“Police are not allowed to make an arrest unless they have probable cause. There is supposed to be a legal reason, otherwise it’s an illegal arrest,” Willie Meggs, state attorney (prosecutor) for Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit, told me. (His circuit does not include Sanford.)
But when I asked Meggs if “probable cause” is a subjective judgment, he acknowledged as much: “Every day,” he said. In other words, there is no “prohibition” against arrest in the statute.
Prosecutors, too, have wide latitude in the cases they pursue — a discretion that benefits whites much more often than it does blacks. Among criminal justice experts, it’s well-known that prosecutors press cases against black defendants even as they drop similar charges against white defendants.
Many of those prosecutors would be gravely offended if they were accused of racism because they believe themselves to be fair and unbiased representatives of the criminal justice system.
Despite remarkable societal progress, some things haven’t changed very much at all. Perhaps that’s the most depressing thing.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)