The cries of anguish from the black community that greeted the Department of Justice decision not to charge George Zimmerman with a federal hate crime in the killing of Trayvon Martin is a stark reminder that the teenager’s death remains a painful wound for many.
The action came as no surprise. In such cases, prosecutors must meet a high standard, and are often reluctant to prosecute what many would see as a second trial for the same crime, even if the legal distinction the department was examining is significant.
Yet the outcome offers little comfort to the victim’s parents in Miami-Dade and his many supporters elsewhere. Their frustration and feeling of helplessness is understandable. Even so, Trayvon Martin’s death was not for naught. It sparked a needed conversation about race in this country.
The tensions between the black and white communities that the killing of Trayvon Martin inspired were heightened by subsequent killings of unarmed blacks by police in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., and in those cases, too, no one was punished.
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George Zimmerman, it must be emphasized, was not a police officer, and he was most assuredly not acting under the color of law. In the black community, however, that distinction is less important than the vital element that binds all these shootings together — the unpunished death of an unarmed black person at the hands of a white individual who ultimately walks away.
That’s why comments by two prominent (white) law enforcement officers recently are encouraging. They suggest that the guardians of law and order, whose role and behavior are central to the debate over black/white encounters, are trying to turn the corner because they realize something has to change lest tensions escalate.
The first comments came from FBI Director James B. Comey. He candidly acknowledged that police officers, white and black, are not immune to bias and went on to make clear that law enforcement must examine and reform itself. “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups,” he said.
On Tuesday, New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton made similar comments, touching on slavery and the “vile” legacy of racism: “Many of the worst parts of black history would have been impossible without police,” he told a mostly black audience in a crowded church basement in Jamaica, Queens.
Both men made clear that the presence of police officers is not the cause of tensions in the inner city, nor are the men and women in uniform the problem. But by daring to change the discourse from the usual outright denial of police misbehavior to recognition of past errors and the need to improve, they have pointed the way to better understanding and reconciliation.
Next week, a task force appointed by President Obama in the wake of events in Ferguson and Staten Island will issue a report likely to recommend better training, body cameras, and guidelines for the use of military-type equipment, among other things.
Such measures are important, but the crucial need for a national discussion about race that became painfully evident after the killing of Trayvon Martin remains a priority if the nation is ever to bridge its racial divide. The conversation started by Director Comey and Comm. Bratton must continue in local communities in South Florida and around the nation.