One of the byproducts of having spent the past two decades in risk management is that, for better or worse, I tend to view everything I see in the news through that lens. This has certainly been the case this past week, as cable news networks, talk radio stations and political blogs have suddenly reaffixed their spotlight on last February’s shooting of Trayvon Martin.
We argue so much over which of the primary characters to cast as the hero, and which the villain. Because of this, key parts of the story get lost in over-hyped sensationalism until the inevitable “next” tragedy occurs. And make no mistake, this tragedy absolutely will happen again. Because what risk management has taught me about the Trayvon Martin shooting is this:
The biggest villains in this case are Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, and the political office holders who sold them to voters. By focusing solely on Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, we’re focusing on the bright, shiny trees and we’re missing the dark and very dangerous forest.
A few years ago I was asked to talk with the executive director of a private social service agency from a different state. In the preceding two months that organization had dealt with the deaths of two of the people they served. Each of the deaths involved violence, and in each case there were concerns that staff actions had at the very least “contributed” to the tragedies. Furthermore, they had also recently been made aware that the parents of a different person in their care was considering calling in the authorities and accusing their son’s caregiver of physical abuse. The executive director was understandably concerned, and wanted to speak with someone about his own concerns completely off the record. (His attorney was on his board of directors, and his own risk manager might have been obligated to report his concerns to his insurance carrier.) To his credit, he was not seeking a line of defense against accusations; he sincerely wanted to know whether or not they should be doing things differently. As it turned out, his organization probably was at least indirectly responsible for what had occurred.
The adults that they served were both highly emotional and particularly difficult to deal with; none of them could communicate with speech, and many could not comprehend the most rudimentary of hand signals. Angry outbursts were not uncommon, and on very rare occasions those outbursts could turn violent. A year before the first death, a caregiver made the surprisingly common error of attempting to restrain a very large person under her care by herself, despite strict organizational rules to only do so with at least one other caregiver. An extremely violent outburst ensued, and she ended up in a hospital with severe bruising, a split lip and a broken arm. As you might imagine, the rest of the staff was shaken up pretty badly.
Management’s reaction to this horror was to go out of their way to let employees know that management had their collective back. Rules about employee safety were slightly rewritten to let employees know that they shouldn’t tolerate certain types of behavior. (And indeed, they shouldn’t.) Reviews of highly questionable employee care-giving activities began to be couched in a way that suggested that any infraction was certainly understandable and not really that big a deal. More and more, any unwelcome actions by the people they served became unacceptable – and any previously unacceptable actions taken by caregivers were found to be “acceptable under the circumstances.” Management chose to make this shift in tone because they believed that their caregivers were basically good people who would never intentionally harm another human being. This, of course, is where they made their (literally) fatal error.
One of the most important and yet troubling things that risk management has taught me is this: cultures often unintentionally and unknowingly signal tacit approval to people who wish to engage in extreme anti-social behavior. One of the terrible, cold truths I have learned over the past two decades is that organizations that cater to children or invalid adults and refuse to invest in internal checks-and-balance systems attract sexual predators. Manufacturers that can’t be bothered with employee safety not only attract injuries, they actually attract people that make their “living” by committing habitual workers comp fraud. Charitable organizations that don’t want to pony up a couple of hundred bucks for an annual audit attract embezzlers. White-collar organizations that treat sexual harassment or anti-discrimination policies as a joke attract people that get off on being cruel and hostile to those under them in the corporate chain of command.
Do not misunderstand my meaning: I’m not saying that bad management makes monsters of good people that are already in the organization. I’m saying that once bad management is implemented it calls the monsters to the door. People who live to cross certain lines go out of their way to identify employers they believe will allow them to do so, or at least look the other way for a while. (If you don’t believe me, ask your local archdiocese about all of the internal policies they’ve been forced to change over the past 10-15 years.)
The reason that the social service agency I talked to had experienced a disproportionate number of violent acts by staff members was that they had a disproportionate number of staff members that enjoyed committing violent acts. As it turned out, none of the employees who were found to be unnecessarily violent (and, as it turned out, emotionally abusive) toward their charges worked for the organization prior to management’s decision to look the other way in instances of poor care giving. A subsequent review of their hiring records showed that that each been terminated for suspected violence by previous employers, but their stories of being put in harms way by those employers was a message those doing the hiring were conditioned to accept.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that social service agency this past week as the 24-new network’s gaze has landed yet again on the terrible tragedy and media clusterf**k that is the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Over time, the covering of the case has evolved into its own cottage industry. Not surprisingly, some of the most important elements of the story have been discarded in favor of largely erroneous or irrelevant elements that fit into a more sensational (and ratings-boosting) framework. Most of what I see or hear in the media these days is a battle between portraying shooter George Zimmerman as a borderline white-supremacist out for blood and victim Trayvon Martin as a predatory, gangsta thug who basically got what was coming to him. True, there is some small amount of talk about whether or not George Zimmerman is guilty of the crime of second degree murder (almost certainly not), and a much, much smaller amount of discussion as to whether or not he is therefore innocent in Martin’s death (again, almost certainly not).
What I don’t see being talked about much is the larger and (with apologies to the Martin family) more important story of the circumstances, created by elected Florida politicians, that probably led to Martin’s death – and will most certainly lead to additional unnecessary violence in the future.
This, of course, is the story the media should be covering.
It may well be that the abysmal coverage of Martin’s death might have been handled better had it not occurred in the middle of a presidential election year. Or maybe not. In any case, the non-political implications of the shooting were largely discarded in order to cover a story that pitted conservatives against liberals.
Left-wing pundits oft repeated that the shooting took place in a “gated community,” taking advantage of all the images those words conjured in their readers’ heads. Not many bothered to mention that Retreat at Twin Lakes was an ethnically diverse townhouse community, where minorities actually outnumbered whites. NBC, in a desire to deliver a story about a race-obsessed murderer that might drive ratings, actually edited an innocent-sounding section of Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 phone call in a ham-fisted attempt to create one.
If left-wing and mainstream media are deserving of a mid-level circle of Hell for their sensationalizing of the story, then the conservative media certainly has dibs on the ninth. Looking to counter a story that the hated Barak Obama dared to identify as a sad tragedy, they went out of their way to build a case that Martin somehow got what was coming to him. They made much of the fact that the first pictures of the two men involved were a photo given by the parents of the victim and the mug shot released by the police department of the shooter – as if reporters were somehow morally obligated to wait until they could find a pictures of the victim and shooter that were unflattering and more angelic looking, respectively. To compensate, they went out of their way to find photos of Martin that might make him seem intimidating to their largely white audience;
the Daily Caller Business Insider went so far as to post potentially intimidating pictures of other black men in their stories of Martin.
Very quickly, the politically competing stories focused on which of the two men was blood-thirsty scum, and which was pure as driven snow. However, though we don’t know for sure exactly what happened on that late February evening (and never will), we do know that the biographies of the two young men involved are more complicated than the media wishes them to be. At the time of the shooting, Martin was serving a suspension from his high school for possession of a pipe with marijuana residue. Perhaps more problematic and less typical for a teenager, however, was his earlier suspension: he’d been caught in a restricted area of the school with a screwdriver and (presumably stolen) jewelry. However, he does not appear to have had any documented incidents of violent behavior in his past.
George Zimmerman, on the other hand, does. In 2005 he was charged with assaulting a police officer; later that year his ex-fiancé sought a restraining order alleging domestic violence. It should be noted that the judge described his actions in the domestic violence case as “run of the mill” and “somewhat mild.” (As outside observers of the 24-hour, sensationalizing media machine, we are left to decide for ourselves where we plant our flags on the moral spectrum of how to interpret “Yeah, he committed domestic violence against a woman he was in a relationship with – but not nearly as severely as others have done.”)
Zimmerman does, in fact, seem to have developed a good reputation in his community as a neighborhood watch coordinator. He is even credited with the capturing of criminals prior to the Martin shooting. The night of the shooting, he “passed” a voice stress test. Despite that, however, his accounting of events is somewhat suspect. According to authorities, his story has not been consistent. In an interview Zimmerman gave with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, he apparently gave a somewhat different accounting of events than he gave to police. In addition, he and his wife have already been caught lying to a judge during his bond hearing.
I’d like to stop here for just one moment. Because if we assume that a 17-year old boy committing no crime should not be shot on his way home from the store and we find that we cannot accurately fit either the shooter or victim into the role of Angel or Devil, it might be worth looking at the culture and conditions – and the State of Florida’s signaling – that allowed events to spiral out of control.
The Sanford Police Department was, of course, highly criticized for releasing Zimmerman and declaring the matter resolved without a thorough investigation; as an explanation, they referenced Florida’s highly-publicized Stand Your Ground Law. The truth of the matter is, when we view their inaction through the lens of Stand Your Ground, it is difficult to justifiably label the police as villains.
Prior to Stand Your Ground there would have been a myriad of circumstances to consider, any of which might have warranted an in-depth investigation: Did Zimmerman know Martin, and had they had previous disputes? Was Zimmerman under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Was Zimmerman more likely to accost or pursue an African American than someone of a different ethnic background? Was he prone to losing his temper, or to being unnecessarily paranoid? Did Zimmerman instigate the initial confrontation – and if so, did he have reasonable cause? Was Zimmerman mostly or even solely responsible for unnecessary escalation once the confrontation occurred? Why had Zimmerman defied both his neighborhood watch training and instructions from the authorities by pursuing a 17-year old that had committed no crime, when he had no data suggesting that a crime had even occurred? Prior to Stand Your Ground being Florida’s law of the land, these were all factors that police could – and should – have very carefully investigated before declaring the killing of a boy that had gone to 7-11 for Skittles a matter that didn’t merit additional scrutiny.
But in a Stand Your Ground world the answers to those questions are largely irrelevant. The law gives Zimmerman the legal right to take a life if he feels his life is threatened; it absolves Zimmerman of any social or legal responsibility not to put himself in a situation where he might take the life of a boy who had done nothing illegal that evening. Further, it absolves the Sanford Police Department of any legal responsibility (or reason) to fully investigate the shooting of an unarmed 17-year old who had committed no crime; in fact, it absolves them of the responsibility of taking any kind of corrective action with his killer.
As I have noted already, cultures often unintentionally and unknowingly signal tacit approval to those who wish to engage in extreme anti-social behavior. Were I Florida’s risk manager back in 2005, I would have advised them that shootings and subsequent political nightmares like the one involving Martin and Zimmerman were the inevitable outcome of Stand Your Ground. Telling your citizenry that, as far as the government is concerned, they have no legal or moral obligation to de-escalate a potentially deadly situation increases the odds of a deadly result. In fact, in a state of almost 20 million people it guarantees that certain types of people will go out of their way to put themselves in such a situation. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world.
Was George Zimmerman such a person? I certainly can’t say for certain one way or another. But his history of “run of the mill” domestic violence and police assault – combined with his disregard for both his neighborhood watch training and instructions from the 9-1-1 dispatcher – suggest that the question is certainly open for debate. If so, then it’s folly to pretend that he missed his state’s message about the acceptability of escalating violence.
And if he wasn’t that guy? If he really is just some poor, well-meaning schmuck in the wrong place at the wrong time? Then a proper and thorough investigation would undoubtedly have put him in a damn better position than he is now: painted as a villain by many and facing a possible prison sentence in order to provide political cover for the same people that passed Stand Your Ground in the first place.
As I said above, the real villains in this case are Florida’s political office holders.
Write us donation checks and vote for us, they cried in creating Stand Your Ground, for without our protection street thugs will come into your living room to kill you and your family, and you will have no legal choice but to let them! Never mind that it was a law designed to needlessly frighten people, and that didn’t actually solve an existing social problem. (You’ll notice prisons are not exactly overflowing with suburban fathers who shot armed murderers and rapists who were coming at them with knives.) So Floridians opened their checkbooks and voted appropriately, and the people who conceived, took credit for, and ran campaigns based in part on their support for Stand Your Ground were richly rewarded.
When the Martin shooting occurred and it became obvious that the ramifications of their law were going to be extremely unpopular, they decided to prosecute Zimmerman to placate the crowd. And they did so knowing full well that, thanks to their legislation, no actual prosecutable crime had been committed. Better for their reelection hopes and donation goals to let a jury take the heat for either acquitting him or ignoring the law and erroneously declaring Zimmerman guilty. I won’t even guess as to how the jury that’s picked ultimately will judge Zimmerman. But I’ll tell you right now that it’s going to be a hung jury – in the sense that they are going to be hung out to dry by Angela Walker, Marco Rubio, Richard Scott, Jeb Bush, and every other Florida pol who either pushed through Stand Your Ground or later pretended that the subsequent sharp increase in “justifiable homicides” was a good thing. They actively enabled this fiasco, and with their prosecution of Zimmerman they are hoping no one notices.
It would be good for the citizens of Florida to recognize this, and to do so as quickly as possible. George Zimmerman may or may not have wished to use Stand Your Ground to create an unnecessary life-or-death situation, but there will be plenty of other anti-social Floridians who will use the law as an excuse to cross that line. Because, like the signaling of the social service agency I spoke with a few years ago, the message of Stand Your Ground may not create monsters – but it will call them to your door.