Editor’s Note: Below is an analysis by Anthony C. Roman, CEO of Roman and Associates, a global insurance & corporate investigation, risk management, and security consulting firm. He is a frequent contributor to CNN, MSNBC, Associated Press and New York Times.
“Be careful, kid. A gun can take you places that you don’t want to go.”
That was the advice given by a wary veteran of law enforcement to his exuberant young colleague. He knew that inexperience, excitement, and a weapon could be an intoxicating, deadly drink. These judicious mentors understood that the risky transformation caused by carrying a gun needed to be eased to ensure consummate professionalism.
How this played, if at all, into the Trayvon Martin killing is an open question only known by George Zimmerman. News accounts reflect he was hoping to become a police officer when his intermittent studies at a community college were completed. An unconfirmed account reflects a George Zimmerman, 28, who resisted arrest in July 2005 with violence, for which he was charged with battery against a law enforcement officer. Those charges were dropped, but neighbor accounts of Zimmerman are mixed. While some suggest he was a caring young man who was concerned about their well being and safety, others charge that he was too aggressive in his role as a neighborhood watch volunteer. He attended a 4-month law enforcement program in 2008, according to a CNN report.
The investigating detectives described Trayvon Martin as a good kid. Records do not indicate any problems with police or otherwise. He had no weapons during the evening the incident occurred. Moreover, he was lawfully present in the complex, visiting with his father who was with his fiancé, a resident.
So how did this seemingly chance encounter between a teenager and a young man escalate into the tragic death of the former, and the trial for murder for the latter? The events leading to this sad evening seem to have been seeded many months before the incident.
The complex in which George Zimmerman resides had suffered at least eight alarming daylight and evening burglaries during the preceding 14 months. There clearly was a sense of fear by many of the residents as exhibited by the Home Association Board asking him to head a “Neighborhood Watch Association.” Zimmerman agreed, and unknown to all at the time, the first link of the tragic night’s chain of events was forged.
The forming of a watch association is not a unilateral, random community act. It is an organization formed with the help of local police departments. The police provide organizational material and advice or in-service training. The pamphlet provided by the police department gives instructions regarding one’s powers of observations, the need to document height and weight, and other points, if you believe someone is behaving suspiciously. Remarkably, some even recommend that you should “trust your instincts” if you feel someone is suspicious. They also recommend that if you begin to doubt your suspicions, then you should call police nonetheless. These are important points to remember, given the circumstances of the events.
A record of registered members should be maintained by organizers. Watch supervisors are neighborhood volunteers known as “captains.” George Zimmerman was the head captain. Watch members are charged with keeping an eye out for strangers, or anyone behaving suspiciously. They are instructed to report to the Captain, who then evaluates the report and calls the police if he or she deems the concern credible. The pamphlet reads in part, “Do not take risks to prevent a crime or try to make an arrest.” Author’s Note: Citizens can detain an individual they observe committing a crime, therefore, they cannot be prohibited from holding a suspect who was directly observed in a criminal act.
The training pamphlet does not prohibit a Watch member from trailing a suspicious person to observe their actions. In fact, it reads that a Captain should be vigilant when outside their home or patrolling their neighborhood. The Watch pamphlet does not prohibit a properly trained & licensed civilian Watch member from carrying their concealed firearm during patrols. The homeowners’ association may have had a prohibition; the question is, would this be legally binding?
Weather during the 52-degree night of the killing was dark and sprinkled with an intermittent, cool, windblown drizzle. Martin was reportedly returning on foot from a local convenience store where he purchased a soft drink and candy. As expected during a cool, damp night, he was wearing a sweatshirt with his hood up. Not a pleasant night for a walk, but not uncommon for teenagers filled with new and wonderful independence to venture out. He was lawfully present in the complex and, as noted, was visiting his father, who was with his fiancé, who is a resident.
When Zimmerman first observed Martin, he was in his SUV within the complex fulfilling his instructed duty to “observe and report suspicious activity to police,” even when in doubt. Police tapes reflect he followed established protocol when first making the call. When questioned by the police dispatcher, Zimmerman reports the reason for his call, who he is, where he is, and the description of the person who has aroused his suspicion.
Tensions now seem to build on both sides. At one point during the call, Zimmerman tells the dispatcher Martin is staring at him, and then approaching him with his “hand in his waistband.” It is clear Martin is aware he is being watched and is uncomfortable. Zimmerman’s voice becomes loud and tense, and he talks fast and breaths hard. He then reports that Martin stops, turns away from him, and leaves the area on foot. Zimmerman expresses concern that he will get away, perhaps recalling prior incidents when suspicious persons disappeared before police arrived. He begins to follow him on foot, despite the dispatcher discouraging him from doing so. At no time did Zimmerman warn Martin that he was with the Neighborhood Watch, as reported by CNN, based on detectives’ statements.
It is important to realize that Martin had committed no reported crime and unbeknownst to Zimmerman, was legally headed in the direction of his father’s fiancés apartment. Zimmerman reportedly does not sound aggressive during the call to the police.
Zimmerman loses sight of Martin yet continues trailing against the suggestion of the police dispatcher. In my view, this is a bad choice for a person carrying a firearm, untrained in this discipline, yet not in and of itself a crime. Tactically speaking, it was a terrible choice, placing all involved, and those in the surrounding area at potential risk for injury.
Whether he may have legally been considered to be ‘working’ in his volunteer Watch Captain role is a question that may be answered during trial. If he was, he may not have been legally permitted to carry the pistol he possessed during the time he was trailing Martin. The dispatcher does not order him to stay in the vehicle. He may not have the authority to give such an order. It is likely he is a civilian with no police powers. Although Zimmerman is not prohibited from trailing someone he believes is a suspicious person, it is clear that his action sets the final link in this deadly tragic chain of events, leaving a teenage boy dead, and a young adult standing trial for murder.
An Analysis: ‘A Creepy Guy Is Following Me’
It is not objectively clear what final events lead to the altercation during which Zimmerman decided to fire the fatal gunshot, which sorrowfully ended the life of an emerging young man. What is clear is that Martin’s potential will remain unfulfilled, and this tragic end has undeniably changed the life of his family and of a George Zimmerman, forever.
So what are the facts, and what is likely to have occurred in these last minutes?
Martin likely knew nothing of Zimmerman’s role in a neighborhood watch program. Zimmerman knew nothing of Martin’s visit to his father’s fiancé’s apartment within the complex. Zimmerman had an obligation to observe and report suspicious individuals, even if he began to doubt his initial feelings. Martin likely felt threatened by Zimmerman, and we suspect he tries to frighten him by staring at him, and feigning an approach to Zimmerman’s SUV. It does not work, as Zimmerman fails to retreat. Did Zimmerman thereby lose an opportunity to identify himself as Neighborhood Watch to Martin? Nowhere have we read in the neighborhood watch pamphlets any instructions on how to identify oneself to “suspicious persons,” if the situation warrants.
Martin leaves the area; exhibiting frustration, while Zimmerman trails on foot to see where he goes, according to what he tells the dispatcher. We submit that anyone in Martin’s situation would feel threatened. His girlfriend recounts that during a cell phone conversation with Martin during the incident, he says…..a creepy guy is following me…..
Likewise, anyone who has trailed a person who they believe may be a criminal, is likely is scared as well. It is dark, rainy, and cold. The wind causes frightening sounds and moves the shadows causing every mirage to be a threat. It is a terrible brew for both to have sipped, one by circumstance and one by intent.
What we do not objectively know is how, in the final moments, they came face to face. Medical evidence reflects Zimmerman suffered non-life threatening superficial facial and rear head wounds consistent with a fist fight and close-quarter struggle.
News reports of the autopsy reflect Martin’s ring finger had a small abrasion—which in some accounts, is reported to be consistent with striking someone. It can also be argued it was suffered in self-defense if he had been attacked.
The circumstances, it seems, lead both parties to fear for their safety. It appears the unfortunate chain of events may have led to a mutual misunderstanding, causing each young man to posture more than the actual circumstances warranted. At its flashpoint, a terrible, fatal altercation ensued.
Two facts are clear. The neighborhood watch program does not recommend trailing suspicious individuals. It is an ‘observe and report’ neighborhood association and police program. Period. If Zimmerman followed the police dispatcher’s advice and did not trail Martin, then the evening would have ended very differently.
How facts and circumstances will affect the verdict of a criminal or potential civil trial cannot be predicted. Will the “stand-your-ground” defense be successful? How will Zimmerman’s role in the neighborhood watch affect the jury’s evaluation during the criminal or possible civil liability trial? Will they be swayed by the fact he disregarded the police dispatcher’s advice and nevertheless continued to trail Martin?
This case does warrant close monitoring and evaluation. Its lessons and implications are and will be significant in evaluating risk management, as well as civic responsibility.
Anthony C. Roman is CEO of Roman and Associates, a global insurance & corporate investigation, risk management, and security consulting firm. He is a frequent contributor to CNN, MSNBC, CNN International, Associated Press, New York Times, Crain’s New York Business, and New York Newsday. Roman is the software designer of WEB TRAC ©, a claims, legal, risk management and security intelligent software program. He may be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him @RomanSearch.com, Twitter and Facebook.