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Saturday, July 13, 2013
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The Treyvon Martin murder trial will soon be over, but it touched a nerve in our country regarding the perplexing question of racial profiling in police work. Almost all of us want good policing and criminal justice systems in our nation so as to protect us from criminals. At the same time, we can only spend so much of our limited money and resources to support these systems. But more importantly, we want our systems to be color-blind, to treat all fairly regardless of race, religious views, sex and sexual preference, ethnic heritage, age, etc. We’d like to think this could all be done without any conflicts. But as the Feb. 26, 2012 incident in the Twin Lakes complex in Sanford, Florida showed, sometimes conflicts are inevitable. And most regrettably, they can be deadly.

George Zimmerman, the volunteer community guard at Twin Lakes accused of murdering Treyvon Martin, clearly was not acting in a fashion that was blind to color, age and sex on the night of Feb. 26. He decided to carry out an enhanced level of surveillance against the late Mr. Martin, based possibly on the fact that Mr. Martin was a young black man (17 years old). While Mr. Zimmerman did not appear to interfere with Mr. Martin’s passage, he certainly did follow him, and called the municipal police requesting them to join in his surveillance effort. This certainly was an intrusion into Mr. Martin’s privacy and quality of life; very few of us would want to be followed and continually monitored by law-enforcement officials, even when outside of our homes. This treatment certainly was the fruit of profiling on Mr. Zimmerman’s part, which almost certainly did include consideration of Mr. Martin’s race.

The question is, can such irritating law enforcement action based on a profile-matching logic be justified by the circumstances? The housing complex where Mr. Zimmerman lived and volunteered to guard had over the past year experienced an increasing and troubling level of home break-ins and theft incidents. Some residents felt that the perpetrators of these incidents were often young black males. One African-American woman who lived in the Twin Lakes complex (but refused to give her name for fear of backlash) was quoted in the press as saying “I’m black, OK? There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood. That’s why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin.”

I cannot answer this question here. It is extremely complex and can only be legitimately resolved over time through a social and political dialectic process. As with the homeland security laws and surveillance systems that were instituted after the attack on Sept 11, 2001, we know that the maintenance of public safety often involves compromised levels of privacy and public comfort. The press has identified many examples of this; for example, if you are an active photographer, you know that you can’t take certain public-area photographs without on-going police interference as you could before 9-11. (Try walking down a public street with a camera near an oil refinery or a major mass transit junction or a power station and start pointing your camera around; see how long it takes for a police car to pull up and ask for your identification and an explanation of your activities). And anyone who flew on an airline before 2001 and after also knows darn well what ‘security burden’ is about. Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA surveillance of public communications recently nailed home the point, as if any more nailing were needed.

Let me make three observations about profiling and public security. First, although “profiling” seems so terribly unfair, irrational and inhumane, every one of us does it, over and over. Whenever you take a job interview, someone is judging whether you would fit in with their workplace and be a good worker, based on a multitude of personal observations. The interviewer is profiling you based on her or his past experiences with various workers who were and were not beneficial to their organization. (And as another arena for sub-conscious profiling, have you even been out on a blind date?)

Is all of this fair? Suppose your hair looked a bit like someone who was a troublesome employee (or someone your blind date once broke up with), and you have some tics or nervous habits that remind the interviewer (or your date) of that person. You probably aren’t going to get the job (or the romance), although the interviewer will never honestly admit as to what turned their minds against you. You may have been a great employee (or lover) despite your messy hair and tics, but too bad, because the hiring authority just didn’t feel that you would be comfortable with this opportunity. I have been on both sides of this process in my life, and I am convinced that this sort of thing is quite common.

Second, there is a well-respected management decision theory that in a way explains profiling. It is called the Theory of Bayes, or Bayesian decision-making. I’m not a management theory guru, but in a nutshell, the Bayesian inference process starts when you are faced with a decision about something that you don’t have enough information about. What you do is make a guess based on whatever associations and clues that you might actually have (and NOT about what you DON’T have; this sounds trite, but too many people focus on the fact that Treyvon Martin had Skittles and iced tea, and not a gun or a crowbar; but George Zimmerman could NOT have known that on the night in question). You come up with a probability estimate that is NOT specific to the subject in question (e.g., the break-in threat from a Treyvon Martin walking across the condo complex at night, or the chances that an unknown applicant for a job will make a good employee), but instead uses clues from certain characteristics that you can observe about the subject. Later on, you hopefully gain more experience and information with the subject in question and you modify your probability estimates based on actual experience. But you do have to start somewhere, so you have to make that subjective estimate for the initial decision.

Third, it appears to me that a lot of people decided very quickly after the Feb. 26 incident that George Zimmerman had shot and killed Treyvon Martin solely because of his race, without any mitigating concern for his own personal survival (i.e., Zimmerman’s claim that Martin had attacked and subdued him and was threatening Zimmerman with possibly fatal injury). Throughout the trial over the past two weeks, I have read a number of articles by commentators who continue to espouse this point of view, see here and here and here for examples (but a tip of my hat to former NPR analyst Juan Williams for attempting to be fair to both sides). In my opinion, this was and clearly is itself a form of race-related profiling; ergo, when a young African-American is killed by a non-African-American law enforcement official, it must involve racial hatred on the part of that official. The question for discussion is, is this a form of rational or irrational profiling?

I myself find some of it rather irrational (although I certainly understand the emotions driven by the unending memories of a long, violent and shameful history of race relations in America, going back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow). I myself felt from the start that the Martin-Zimmerman case was quite complex, in need of a detailed investigation of all the circumstances.

The available information has been reviewed by the trial participants and the press over the past 2 weeks, along with supplemental information from the press that was not or could not be presented to the jury (e.g. Martin’s use of marijuana, and his text communications and Facebook postings regarding his fighting with other youth and his interest in having a gun). I have taken some time to review this information, and thus I recently formed an opinion as to what happened on the night of Feb. 26 at Twin Lakes, and whether and to what degree Mr. Zimmerman should be sanctioned for Mr. Martin’s tragic death.

But I’m not going to discuss that here, because what finally matters is what the jury panel will decide (and after that, possibly what a panel of appellate judges will say upon legal review). Racial profiling is a terrible thing per se; but profiling in general is here to stay, and so long as it is, racial factors and considerations can never be completely filtered out from it. All we can hope for is as much openness as possible and some good faith in trying to be fair.

Oh, and an ironic P.S., if I may. In regard to the problem of profiling for the purposes of criminal activity monitoring: what Mr. Zimmerman did — i.e., driving and walking around the building complex observing the movement of people — may soon be obsolete. Outdoor security cameras are getting smaller and better and cheaper as technology progresses. Already they are in many public places, and it is not too difficult to imagine a future (coming soon) where they will monitor every square inch of outdoor space (and much indoor space too — hopefully NOT into the windows of our homes and apartments, but who knows were it will stop). So, a future Treyvon Martin will be continually monitored whenever and where ever he steps outside of a private residence. And almost no one will know the race, creed or color of the person or persons on the other end monitoring all those cameras. (And perhaps a future Edward Snowden will help program an algorithm to instantly identify the race, age and sex of everyone appearing on the screen.)

1984 is coming soon; bye-bye amateur volunteer watchmen like George Zimmerman (who might soon be spending some time “in the can” anyway); welcome, Big Brother!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:29 pm      

  1. Jim, I can’t say I disagree with anything you’ve said here. I do have some observations and questions for consideration, though. I need to say that I’m writing this knowing that Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty in (what seems to me) a pretty “fast” verdict.

    First of all, to specifically address some of the points you made: I think something needs to be added to the point that not only was Mr. Martin followed, but at some point he was confronted when Mr. Zimmerman approached him closely. I’d venture that if Mr. Zimmerman had only *followed* Mr. Martin, none of this would have happened in the way it did. The police would have come and then what may or may not have happened would have occurred.

    Then too, an observation: I find myself wondering just exactly *how* the laws, specifically those involved in this case, are worded in Florida. For instance: Does “stand your ground” refer to the ground one owns as his/her own property; or does it refer to wherever one happens to be standing, which then means that wherever one goes is one’s “ground”, thus making the world “one’s ground”. That part of the law as it is written in Florida is foggy to me. Just on the surface of things, it would seem to me that this law needs some more specific defining.

    [Mary — recall that this case did not involve the Florida “Stand Your Ground” laws; the defense focused solely upon the common-law circumstantial justifications for actions that would normally be considered criminal. JimG]

    As regards the fact that Mr. Martin was a teenager: I know a close friend who is black and who has been attacked by a gang of teenagers and knocked unconscious (albeit, this friend himself was walking home in an inebriated state), easy “pickings” for thugs. He has little sympathy for the teenager involved, although I would say he is not entirely “up to date” on the full facts of this case. I might add that, in his own “prejudiced” way, this individual is only too willing to “profile” teenagers and is quite afraid of them, at least in gangs; I’m not sure how he would react to them individually.

    There are a couple of things that *do* bother me about this situation; one is general; one is more specific. First: As I heard on the news this a.m., if the situation were reversed, how long would it take to convict Mr. Martin of killing Mr. Zimmerman? I think that would go quite fast; two strikes against Mr. Martin: He’s a black and he’s a teenager. Second, and this is more general: This is now the second case in Florida where the killing of a child by an adult resulted in the adult being acquitted; remember the Casey Anthony case relatively recently? I find myself wondering just what is wrong with that picture in Florida. Is a pattern being established here?

    When I find myself thinking of the parents of Mr. Martin, all I can do is sigh in grief; I’m sure their grief knows bounds anybody else is incapable of experiencing. While Mr. Martin may have been doing a “teenager” and have been “being smart” in that he tho’t it “funny” to perhaps “bait” the white guy watching and following him and while that in itself may be wrong on Mr. Martin’s part; still if that were the case, it still would not be grounds for his being killed by someone who was ordered by the police to stay in his car and not approach the individual.

    On some other, somewhat off the topic points: Regarding the Snowden situation, perhaps there’s something here I don’t understand, but it occurs to me that some 30 or 40 years ago (was it longer?) there was a massive international fuss over the fact that Russia had “bugs” in our embassies and in other “secret” and political places, monitoring what was going on both in our embassies and other places throughout the world. If I recall correctly, there was even talk about microwaves being used to pick up conversations from buildings that were considered quite far away at the time. (Nowadays, the drones would be able to far outdistance those microwaves.)

    I don’t quite understand the hubbub about this whole “Snowden thing”. OK, he’s leaking our “secrets” and he’s an American. I say one way or another this is the same thing, one country listening in to what every other country has to say about any one particular international issue or political problem going on. This kind of thing has been going on almost forever, it seems to me. (In the old days there courts and kings had spies all over the place to quickly relay messages that were “secret”.) Yes, I can see (gasp!) an American given top secret clearance (or something similar) is the one who’s giving away the secrets. This seems to indicate to me that someone in our own country slipped up when it came to Mr. Snowden. I just can’t get myself too fussed up about it all. Perhaps I’m missing the fact that other people’s lives are at stake (haven’t they always been?). Wasn’t it even our own vice president who “outed” Valerie Plame? (Or am I incorrect on that point?) I find myself wondering if these “other people” (read spies) were at least not suspected to be such already by the countries they were monitoring. As I say, I may simply not understand the situation completely; and I certainly do *not* want to diminish the harm done to individuals who may be involved.

    And lastly, when it comes to having cameras observing us when/wherever we go: Don’t they already have something similar in London and even more in general in England? If I have it correct, I recently read of an automobile crash that was very serious that happened on a country road in England (again, I am now sure *where* in England, but it was on a *country* road); cameras captured the crash, enabling authorities to find out who was at fault. Again, I’m not too specific here; but I tho’t when I saw this: They even have cameras on country roads in England! While I can understand England’s need to have such surveillance because of all the bombings they have had in the recent past, still it is reminiscent of being observed wherever one goes.

    Perhaps “Big Brother” is already here in some places; sooner rather than later to arrive where we are. MCS

    Comment by Mary — July 14, 2013 @ 9:31 am

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