Focusing on What's Important in the Trayvon Martin Case

One of the sadder aspects of Trayvon Martin's death is how it's becoming a touchstone for a nebulous and unresolvable "conversation around race" instead of a touchstone for discussing the horrendous job Martin's local police department did in investigating his death.


I almost lost on NPR the other day when a caller complained that we needed to stop protesting and let the police perform a thorough investigation. In point of fact, a thorough investigation is exactly what didn't happen and is precisely what's motivating the protest:

Among other things, George Zimmerman, 28, was not subject to a criminal background check until after he was released from custody. A possible racial slur muttered by Zimmerman on a 911 call was overlooked. Nearly a week passed before important witnesses were interviewed by the police. Perhaps most crucially, investigators failed to access Martin's cell phone records for weeks.

Those records revealed that just before he was shot, the teen was on the phone with his girlfriend, who said she overheard crucial moments of the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin.

"Those mistakes should not have been made," said Andrew Scott, former chief of the Boca Raton police department and a national policing consultant. "They were such rudimentary aspects of an investigation." 

Martin family members and their attorneys relentlessly cited these errors, which echoed through the national media and the blogosphere.

"It has fueled the fires," Scott said. "The credibility of the agency is now in question..."

Trymaine Lee has done outstanding work on this case. For some reason there's this notion out there that Trayvon was killed on Monday, Al Sharpton showed up on Tuesday, and there were marches on Wednesday. There's an entire contingent of critics who are much more comfortable attacking Sharpton, or wondering why "black on black" crime doesn't attract any protests.

As I have written, the contention is, itself, false. But more importantly the protests aren't merely about Trayvon Martin's killing, they are about the failure of a police department to rigorously investigate a crime. Lee's story points to other such incidents in which the same thing happened. At its root, Trayvon Martin's killing is a law and order case, and you would think conservatives would latch on to that. Instead, with few exceptions, we are being told that the true calamity here is the presence of Al Sharpton.

I don't expect law enforcement to heal the racial divide. I don't expect cops to do the work of society. And George Zimmerman could be president of the local chapter of the NAACP, for all I care. When someone is killed--regardless of the race of the shooter or the victim--I expect them to give it all the due attention law enforcement can muster. That did not happen here. And it isn't the first time.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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