The tragic shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has left the country shocked and ashamed. In response to this tragedy, the U.S. House of Representatives today is hosting a Democratic forum titled "Protecting a "Suspect" Community: Forum on Racial Profiling, Federal Hate Crimes Enforcement and "Stand Your Ground Laws". The ACLU, along with other national political, social and media leaders have joined the Martin family in seeking justice for the death of this young man, who by all accounts had a bright future ahead of him. Today's hearing is an opportunity to discuss how we as a nation want to ensure that young men like Trayvon are not the victims of vigilante justice and racial profiling. (Pictured above, from left to right: Rev. Al Sharpton, the ACLU of Florida’s Joyce Hamilton Henry and Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, at the gathering last week calling for justice for Trayvon.)
The FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have announced that they will undertake an investigation; these agencies should investigate not only the circumstances around Trayvon's killing, but also the patterns and practices of the Sanford Police Department more generally. And while we are encouraged by the commitment of state and federal agencies to investigate the circumstances surrounding Trayvon's death, we don't want to lose sight of the need to not only uncover what happened that tragic night but also to review the initial local investigation. There are still unanswered and very troubling questions about the Sanford Police Department's response to the incident.
Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin's case is just one example of the Sanford Police Department's disturbing history of responses to incidents that involve African-Americans. In 2006, two private security guards, the son of a Sanford police officer and a volunteer for the department, shot and killed an African-American teenager with a single gunshot to his back. Although the guards admitted to never identifying themselves, they were released without charges.
More recently in 2010, the son of a Sanford Police Department lieutenant, Justin Collison, assaulted a homeless African-American man outside a bar. The officers responding to the scene released Collison without charges. After video tape of the incident surfaced, Collison eventually surrendered to police. The police chief at the time was ultimately forced into retirement, but the sergeant in charge of the Collison case was also the first supervisor on the scene where Trayvon Martin was shot to death.
In addition to an investigation into the history of problematic police conduct in Sanford, Fla., the ACLU also supports a thorough investigation into whether the Trayvon Martin shooting was a federal hate crime. Since news reports indicate that the shooter, George Zimmerman, may have uttered a racial epithet while pursuing Trayvon Martin, it is necessary to consider the possibility that a hate crime was committed. Federal investigations and prosecutions of hate crimes serve as a significant deterrent; they also reaffirm the national consensus that it is abhorrent and culturally unacceptable for people to be targeted because of their race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or other characteristics.
Congress can play a significant role in the wake of this tragedy by fully funding the Civil Rights Division of DOJ, so that it has the resources to investigate civil rights violations by law enforcement across the nation, passing the End Racial Profiling Act and urging the administration to strengthen the Department of Justice Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement.
As important as a complete investigation of this incident is, we must recognize that this incident raises concerns that go beyond the actions of one man in Florida.Failing to take a clear, incisive look at the continuing association of young men of color with crime assures that these tragic incidents will continue leaving us to ask how many young people must die before we address the serious underlying problem of race in the United States.
Read the ACLU testimony here.