Before Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, the odds were already against him. For young African American men, homicide is the number one cause of death; the rate is three times higher than that of Hispanics, the racial group with the second highest rate of homicides. These statistics aren’t new or shocking (unfortunately), which begs the question: how can the leader of a law enforcement division claim a color blind approach to his line of work?
Yet the Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has notoriously stated, "Our investigation is color blind and based on the facts and circumstances, not color. I know I can say that until I am blue in the face, but, as a white man in a uniform, I know it doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”
Judging the intentions and racial biases of Zimmerman as an individual is without a doubt a muddled issue. And law enforcement is by no means able to control the mindset of every person in society who harbors racial prejudices to the point of violence, nor are they always equipped to make such judgments. But law enforcement exists in part to help overcome and counteract such instances of racial prejudice and violence, not exacerbate them; knowing what we do about inequalities in race and violence, our justice system should by no means be color blind in a case like Trayvon Martin’s.
For Lee to say what he did as the head of this investigation is negligent and shows he is unfit to have a leadership position in law enforcement; it turns out that Sanford agrees. By refusing to acknowledge how racial prejudices and bias play a part in so many instances of homicide, he is helping to silence the issues that must be discussed in cases like Trayvon Martin's. Lee's reaction proves that we still have a long way to go in constructively acknowledging and dealing with issues of racial violence both in our communities and internally among law enforcement officials, who have to be particularly knowledgeable and sensitive to these issues and biases.
Though the Martin case is a tragic incident, it is not an anomaly. Issues of race in regards to violence and law enforcement are constantly surfacing. Just this past September, we witnessed massive questioning over the legitimacy of Troy Davis’s death row sentence and the racial bias that may have played a part in his arrest, trial, and execution. Martin and Davis are unfortunately only two recent examples of a long list of similar controversies.
Clearly, the training that is already being provided for law enforcement officers is not sufficient. The consistency of training across states and cities – and how we hold leadership accountable – is not being scrutinized closely enough. Though the federal authorities are stepping in to investigate Martin’s case, a direct look into the Sanford Police Department, Bill Lee, and their methods for dealing with this murder would be equally prudent. Those moving into law enforcement leadership positions should be required to go through further education beyond the basic training of officers on issues of race.
Far more terrifying for our society than one crazy, racist person is a law enforcement apparatus that proves it is unaware of racial inequalities and underlying biases and unwilling to consider these issues when a racially suspect murder occurs. Though individuals must certainly be tried as individuals, Martin’s case cannot be looked at in isolation when it comes to widespread law enforcement policies; it must be taken as an indication that law enforcement’s current efforts to correct underlying racial biases within its own forces are insufficient. The discourse surrounding Martin’s murder and the reaction of the Police Chief Bill Lee has been too narrowly focused. To talk about Martin without acknowledging the added harmful behavior of law enforcement is only setting the stage for future Troys and Trayvons.
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