Why did the media give the George Zimmerman trial such extensive coverage? The trial brings into focus several important issues about how we police ourselves, how people live behind gates, and what harms can result from the intersection of these realities.
First, the reality of the gated community played a major role in the trial. Approximately one out of nine people in Florida lives in a gated community. Such communities view themselves as refuges, enclaves separated off from the rest of us. Thus, it appears that Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin and provoked a confrontation because he did not think Trayvon belonged in his special community. (Actually, Trayvon did—he was staying with his father.) As we wall ourselves off from our neighbors, we become much more suspicious of the “other”—be it a member of another race, a member of another generation, or someone, in Zimmerman’s eyes, who just “didn’t belong” in his private space in the world.
Second, the trial shows the scary nature of privatizing our policing. Amateurs doing the patrolling—neighborhood watch members like Zimmerman—have no real training about how to patrol effectively. In America, we have about 911,000 sworn peace officers who comprise an authentic police force. They have the power of arrest, side arms and the authority to use them, qualified immunity from suit, and, most importantly, extensive training and rigorous background checks. I am not sure Zimmerman could have passed a background check. He certainly did not have the standard 14 weeks of training at a police academy; nor did he have the subsequent six months to a year probationary period when he would have been supervised by a training officer and would have reported to a training sergeant or lieutenant. Also, real police officers must undergo continual training in firearms proficiency, effective communications, and other important skills. Zimmerman, it seems, had none of this.
Interview a training officer at a police academy and he will tell you that the first thing he teaches young, aggressive officers is not to provoke a confrontation. Police are taught to control situations in a manner that does not escalate the tension, something Zimmerman was not trained to do. (This accounts for the police dispatcher telling Zimmerman to back off and wait for the patrol officers.) If a subject becomes aggressive, well-trained police officers back off and call for back-up. Because they have greater numbers, the police can control a situation without getting anyone hurt. Also, unlike Zimmerman, police officers have uniforms and badges, and people will comply with their requests because of these demonstrations of authority. This disparity in training, resources, and effectiveness shows how dangerous it is to have amateurs patrolling neighbors. Nevertheless, there are now more private security officers than sworn peace officers in America. In Illinois, a private security officer only needs 40 hours of training at a community college in order to get a license and carry a gun—and Zimmerman was not even a private security officer.
Third, while there are some factual disputes in the trial, this case highlights and tests Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, for which the NRA lobbied for years. An aspect of the law caused the original prosecutor to refrain from charging Zimmerman because he didn’t think he could demonstrate by probable cause that Zimmerman was not justified in shooting Trayvon. So, by the terms of the law, Zimmerman should not even have been charged. (The special prosecutor thought otherwise.)
Also, because Zimmerman was not originally charged, the lawyer for Trayvon’s family led a groundswell to put pressure on the prosecutor’s officer. This is not too much of a problem, because state and local prosecutors in this country are almost always elected (federal ones serve by Senate-confirmed Presidential appointment) and have to be responsive to the public. Given the great power prosecutors have, it is appropriate that they have to be accountable; there certainly can be abuses due to prosecutors pandering—think of the botched Duke lacrosse players scandal.
Fourth, regarding the media feeding-frenzy, one factor is that cameras are allowed in Florida courtrooms. If this had happened in a jurisdiction that does not allow cameras, such as any federal court, there would be much less interest. Without pictures, the vast majority of media would not care. Also, there is a whole subset of cable shows—Nancy Grace’s being one of note—that have to have this content in order to exist. Grace had just wrapped up coverage of the Jodi Arrias trial and needed content. Like a shark, she has to keep moving or she will fade into irrelevancy.
One final note—why was Zimmerman acquitted? There is a great advantage and convenience to a “blame the dead man” defense. Zimmerman is the only one who can tell a coherent narrative and the Stand Your Ground law favored him by putting an additional burden on the prosecutor. The fundamental rule in trial advocacy is this: whoever tells the better story wins.