One of the disjointed theories of the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial was his status as a wannabe cop who was constantly calling 911 to report suspicious activities. Numbers flew fast and thick. According to some, Zimmerman was calling the Sanford police virtually every half hour. And of course, he always called to report young black men, and even a 7 year-old black child! Obviously, Zimmerman must be a drooling, crazed racist.
Fortunately for our system of justice, this theory was just one of many the prosecutors threw against the wall in the vain hope that something would stick and so confuse matters as to allow a conviction unsupported by any evidence.
A recent article by Michelle Meyer at The Faculty Lounge provides the best–and likely most complete–evidence I’ve seen regarding Zimmerman’s phone calls to the Sanford Police. I don’t imagine that they will, once and for all, end this controversy. Far too many people, including our own Department of Justice, have a personal stake in maintaining The Narrative despite the verdict. However, for those willing to actually consider fact, Meyer’s compilation appears to be definitive.
Interestingly, Meyer appears to be an honest–and experienced–academic. Note:
So, to head off similar objections, for those who deem them relevant, let me offer a few biographical details. Before doing so, let me be very clear that no experiences I have ever had, or ever will have, substitute for or even approximate what black men experience every day over their entire lives in the U.S. But, since Brando discussed “put[ting] in the work to understand something from an intellectual standpoint,” I’ll say that I have a humanities Ph.D. (in addition to my law degree) and that for seven years I was in a relationship with a black man. You don’t get out of either of those experiences without getting an education in race. I experienced life as part of an interracial couple in rural New Hampshire and in Virginia and we survived the O.J. verdict. In grad school, I spent plenty of time reading about race, gender, and class (and heteronormativity), I taught units on affirmative action and capital punishment, and UVa’s Studies in Women and Gender department even awarded me its Zora Neale Hurston award for best graduate student essay across the university, which then became the basis for a portion of my dissertation.
In the year between my Ph.D. and starting law school, I spent a year working on an edited volume about DNA and the criminal justice system. I spent my 1L summer at DOJ’s Criminal Appellate section. Charles Ogletree taught me criminal law, the late great Bill Stuntz taught me advanced criminal procedure, and Carol Steiker taught me about capital punishment (needless to say, none of these individuals should be seen as endorsing any part of this post). I clerked on the 11th Circuit, which has a crime-heavy docket. In short, I know how important race and prosecutorial discretion are in the criminal justice system.
Part of honestly writing about the work of others is accurate and complete attribution, and Meyer does not disappoint:
This chronological list of calls to both 911 and the non-emergency number is my rendering of the police records of GZ’s calls (link is to original source material). I have translated police codes and lingo to normal English as best I can. Whenever race/ethnicity is mentioned in the call log, I have included it here (any omissions are unintentional; if you discover any, please let me know so that I can correct this post).
A note about the number of calls GZ made. I’ve listed 43 incidents over about 7.5 years. (In a few cases, GZ called the operator back to provide additional information or to cancel the report, and that generated perhaps something closer to 46 calls, but I have chosen to focus on incidents.) On several occasions, I have seen vastly different claims about both the total number of calls GZ made and the time span over which he made them (e.g., ‘Zimmerman…called 911 46 times in 15 months‘ and ‘Zimmerman called…over 150 times‘). I have not seen evidence of any additional calls made by GZ to either 911 or the non-emergency number, and all of the calls introduced into evidence by the state at his trial came from the 43 incidents I catalog here. But if there are other calls that should be included in the calculus, I will be happy to learn about them and update this post.
Following are the calls, with brief descriptions of their content. Keep in mind that each and every one of these calls would be considered unremarkable by any police agency. They are the kind of calls that routinely come into any dispatch center, and precisely the kinds of calls that any police agency encourages the public to make.
Indeed, officers sometimes find such calls to be mildly annoying, particularly if they don’t pan out, but every competent police officer would rather have this kind of information than not. Intelligence information about what’s happening in any community is invaluable, and no officer can know when a tiny bit of information that initially seems unimportant may turn out to be very important indeed. One of the best ways to gather intelligence is through the citizenry. Competent officers always support and encourage citizens that make such calls.
1) 8/12/04: Reports male driving pick-up without car seat
2) 9/20/04: Neighbor’s garage door open
3) 8/20/04: Reports white male walking in the road carrying a paper bag, presumably drinking
4) 3/17/05: Pothole
5) 4/27/05: Neighbor’s garage door open
6) 9/21/05: Stray dog [the dog’s color isn’t mentioned on the record]
7) 9/23/05: Couldn’t reach his sister by phone
8) 11/4/06: Reports pick-up driving around apartment complex for last five minutes “driving real slow looking at all the vehicles in the complex and blasting music”
9) 6/24/07: Two Hispanic males and one white male loitering near pool; officer spoke to them and determined were locked out of their vehicle
10) 10/14/07: Possible intentional damage to his car tire; thinks he knows who did it
11) 11/25/07: Reports disturbance involving his ex-roommate, a white male
12) 1/5/09: Fire alarm going off
13) 3/12/09: Requests patrol outside his home for a week while he’s away
14) 5/4/09: Reports blue Audi; unclear why
15) 6/10/09: Fire alarm going off
16) 6/16/09: People jumping over the fence and going into the pool area, playing basketball, trashing the bathroom; reports make and model of car
17) 8/21/09: Disturbance involving landlord over rent and foreclosure
18) 8/26/09: Male driving without headlights
19) 9/7/09: Pothole
20) 9/22/09: Speed bike doing wheelies, speeding and weaving in and out of traffic
21) 10/23/09: Pitbull
22) 11/21/09: Referring to unclear past event, GZ says subject is in front of his residence
23) 11/3/09: White male driver in county vehicle cutting people off
24) 1/1/10: White male having loud verbal dispute with female in back of pick-up
25) 1/12/10: Neighbor’s garage door open, “very unlike his neighbor”
26) 2/27/10: Reports residence in complex where multiple vehicles are constantly coming to the residence; unknown subjects run out to the vehicles and run back inside; the subjects are always outside with the garage open and hang out all night, an ongoing problem; unknown who lives at that address; GZ advises there are constantly different people
27) 4/28/10: Vehicle obstructing road
28) 6/12/10: At least 50 subjects GZ doesn’t think live at complex are in the clubhouse & pool areas having a party, causing road obstructions
29) 6/26/10: Approximately 50 subjects are having a loud party and blocking the street
30) 10/2/10: Female driver yelling at elderly passengers, unknown if altercation is physical, vehicle was rocking back and forth
31) 11/8/10: Trash in roadway, appears to contain glass
32) 11/26/10: Motion alarm tripped while GZ is out of town
33) 3/18/11: Pitbull in his garage
34) 4/22/11: Black male 7-9 years old walking alone unsupervised on busy street; GZ “concerned for well being”
35) 5/27/11: GZ’s alarm tripped while he’s at work
36) 8/3/11: Black male on foot at back entrance of neighborhood last seen wearing white tank top and black shorts; GZ believes he’s involved in recent burglaries in neighborhood; GZ says he matches the description that was given to police
37) 8/6/11: Two black male teens near back gate of neighborhood, one wearing black tank top and black shorts, 2nd wearing black t-shirt and jeans; GZ says they’re the ones who have been burglarizing the area and predicts subjects will run into the subdivision next to his complex
38) 9/23/11: Open garage door; GZ notes he’s part of neighborhood watch and is concerned about recent burglaries in area; had a neighborhood watch meeting previous night with Sgt. Herx who advised him to report anything suspicious
39) 10/1/11: Two black males approx 20-30 years old appear to be loitering in their car at gate of community at 1 am; GZ doesn’t recognize subjects or vehicle and is concerned due to recent burglaries in the area
40) 12/10/11: White male with shaved head at club house in black Mercedes was hired by GZ to serve food at an event but then GZ replaced him and subject seemed upset and wants to be paid; GZ has never met him in person; GZ’s wife will meet with police when they arrive
41) 1/29/12: Five or six kids, ages 4-11 years, running and playing in the street and running out in front of cars
42) 2/2/12: Black male wearing black leather jacket, black hat, and printed PJ pants keeps going to the residence of a white male; unclear what he’s doing; subject was gone when police arrived
53) 2/26/12 (TRAYVON MARTIN CALL): Black male, late teens, dark gray hoodie, jeans or sweatpants, walking around area; GZ concerned about recent burglaries
Keep in mind that every police agency has a few citizens that for a variety of reasons, make far too many calls. Every officer knows them, but smart officers always respond and check things out anyway. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Forty-three calls in 7.5 years (90 months): that’s slightly less than a call every two months. That’s a pale imitation of the portrait of a crazed vigilante painted by the prosecution. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to expect far more calls from a local neighborhood watch captain. Obviously, Zimmerman was either negligent in his neighborhood watch duties, or he was careful not to be a nuisance. In other words, he was responsible. Meyer’s conclusions:
So what do GZ’s calls say about his views about black men? Many reports concerned open garage doors, potholes, and other inanimate objects. Others involved dogs. Others involved people — sometimes individuals and sometimes large groups — of unknown or undescribed race/ethnicity.
Of the twelve incidents in which race was given, six, including the incident reporting TM, involved black males (#34, 36, 37, 39, 42, 43), 5 involved white males (#3, 11, 23, 24, 40), and one involved two Hispanic males and one white male (#9). We could just count eyeballs (or skin color) and draw conclusions about whether GZ is a racial profiler on that basis. But as in most things, context matters. Which way does the context cut in this case? Probably in both directions.
Of the six incidents involving black males, one, recall, is the one in which GZ reports that he is concerned about the well being of a black male child who is wandering a busy street without adult supervision. So we’re talking about five incidents involving black males GZ found suspicious, and one involving a black male he wanted to help.
On the other hand, of the six incidents involving white males and Hispanic males, we may want to distinguish those incidents where GZ knew or at least had prior contact with the “suspect” (#11, the incident involving his ex-roommate, and #40, the one involving the food server he fired but had never met) from those where he reported total strangers (the remaining four). This leaves us with five reports involving black males GZ found suspicious and four reports involving white and/or Hispanic males.
We may also, however, wish to distinguish reports of men whom GZ found suspicious because they seemed to be loitering or who looked out of place from those who displayed more objectively problematic behavior. So we might exclude the incident involving the white male presumed drunkard (#3), the white male driver cutting people off (#23), and the white male having a loud dispute with a woman (#24). That yields five black male incidents to only the one incident involving two loitering Hispanics and one white (#9).
Of those five black male incidents, however, all took place between August 3, 2011 (the night of a home invasion in the complex), and February 26, 2012 (the night of TM’s death). Here’s where what we mean by “racial profiling” becomes important. I hope those who have thoughts about that particular issue will weigh in. In what follows, I’ve added information about the ongoing crime in GZ’s neighborhood, which he references in his calls to police.
As GZ’s neighbor Olivia Beltaran, the victim of the home invasion, described it at trial (and at the time to police), on August 3, two late-teenaged black males approached her home, and then returned 30 minutes later, entered it through an open window, and stole some items while she hid in a bedroom with her baby and a pair of scissors and called 911. Apparently GZ’s wife also saw the suspects enter or leave Beltaran’s home and provided a description to police. Police recovered some latent prints “that represent the suspects jumping over a fence between Calabrea Springs Cove” and GZ’s complex as well as latent prints from inside Beltaran’s home, and sent them for possible matching. The evening of the burglary, GZ called the non-emergency number (#36) to report someone who matched Beltaran’s description, but he was gone by the time police arrived. The same thing occurred three days later: another call from GZ, with the police arriving too late (#37).
What we discover through analysis of the facts is, as one might expect, the very opposite of what the prosecution presented at trial: Zimmerman’s reports to the police involved very few black males, and those calls came in the months prior to the shooting of Martin, when the Retreat at Twin Lakes was being repeatedly hit by burglars and thieves who happened to be young black males. Though Meyer is somewhat reluctant to draw this conclusion (perhaps she is simply being careful), Zimmerman was acting entirely responsibly based on the available evidence. Zimmerman was reporting a relatively few young black males because young black males were involved in multiple crimes in his neighborhood, and he, and the Sanford Police, well knew it.
For those readers familiar with the world of academia, you’ll find Meyer’s conclusion amusing and typical, but in a good way:
Update: I meant to note that the tendency to see facts through various lenses — whether their own experiences, their scholarly areas of expertise, or an ideology — does not make people evil. It makes them human. Without swallowing postmodernism hook, line, and sinker, in some very real sense it’s impossible not to approach events through one or more lenses. Indeed, “intellectual conflicts of interests” (as I vaguely group varying tendencies to ignore or distort fact) has become a scholarly fascination of mine, and that is one very strong lens through which I admittedly view commentary about the Zimmerman trial. So we all do it, and sometimes those lenses are valuable and help us see things that others don’t (see, e.g., the wise Latina). But sometimes, of course, they obfuscate. The important thing for everyone, but especially for journalists, lawyers, and scholars, is to strive for as much intellectual honesty, open-mindedness to reconsidering one’s position, and a hermeneutics of charity when hearing others’s views as is consistent with the fact of human finitude and fallibility (told you I have a humanities Ph.D.). Kudos to several law profs who have done just this in the context of some very difficult and painful conversations, including Tamar Birkhead.
By all means, read Meyer’s entire article and consider her audience. She’s addressing fellow academics, many of who obviously reflexively buy into The Narrative.
Remember too that the prosecution had all of this information before trial. They knew precisely how many times Zimmerman called the Sanford Police and the nature and content of those calls. They knew he was not a racist and that his calls were not excessive in number or malicious in intent and content. They knew his calls were civic-minded and were reasonable. But that’s not what they put into evidence, nor did they make any attempt to correct grievous lies and misconceptions in the media.
That’s what happens when unethical people try to put an innocent man in prison for life. And now you know that, and what to say to people who can’t let go of this part of The Narrative.