BOSTON (State House News Service) - Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday questioned the reaction by Florida law enforcement to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager whose death last month has exploded into a national debate about racial profiling and self-defense laws.
Describing a "sad, murky" set of facts surrounding the shooting, Patrick, the nation's only black governor, praised the Obama administration's Department of Justice for investigating the shooting.
"I think it' a really important thing that DOJ, civil rights division has gotten involved, and a troubling thing that law enforcement in Florida has not," he said during a radio interview on WTKK. Patrick headed the civil rights division of the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton.
Martin was killed last month by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, while walking home unarmed and wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Zimmerman has reportedly claimed that he deemed Martin suspicious and tracked him to determine where he was going. Zimmerman also claimed that the two began scuffling and that he fired his weapon in self-defense.
Police never charged Zimmerman, contending that they had no reason to doubt his claim that he was acting in self-defense, and the decision shined a spotlight on Florida's self-defense statute – known as Stand Your Ground – in which residents are permitted to use deadly force if they feel they are under physical threat. Questions have emerged about whether Zimmerman, who is of Hispanic descent, racially profiled Martin, and whether police did the same by opting against charging Zimmerman.
"It's been moving, what the response has been, sort of across demographics," Patrick said. "The senselessness of this, the notion that you could look a certain way, be dressed a certain way, and be in a certain neighborhood and place your life in jeopardy on account of that is not who we want to be in this country."
"How we layer assumptions on people is – that's an unfortunate part of life. And when you add in race, it feels particularly unfair," he continued.
Asked by WTKK host Jim Braude whether he thinks Florida police erred in not charging Zimmerman, Patrick said, "I know how important it is to review the evidence and talk to the folks and make a judgment and not just pop off based on what you read in the newspapers or see in the news."
Patrick added that he would veto a bill in Massachusetts similar to Florida's Stand your Ground law.
"Well, I don't think that bill is gonna move and if it were to move, it's not gonna get past my desk," he said. "We don't need a stand your ground bill, and I don't entirely understand what the argument was for it in Florida."
Patrick said the shooting didn't appear to involve self-defense issues.
"The other part of the Trayvon case I would say that is troubling is that it didn't seem to have anything to do with standing your ground," he said. "It seemed more to do with a kid being in the wrong place at the wrong time or frankly in a perfectly appropriate place but being assumed to be in the wrong place and being stalked by a guy with a gun."
Prompted by WTKK host Margery Eagan, Patrick recounted an incident when he was in school in which he was accused of stealing from vending machines but was later exonerated. Patrick said he was managing vending machines as part of an assignment he was given through his scholarship program and that he was responsible for turning over vending machine money to the company. He added that, unbeknownst to him, students were stealing from the vending machine.
"In one of the houses, the kids were just helping themselves to soda, and so the till came up short," he said. "And when I told the guy from the company that the till was short and the reason was we'd had a lot of theft, the whole thing turned to me, and I said ‘what are you talking about?' Ultimately the thing got resolved when we went over to the dorm and one of the white kids there said, ‘Yeah, I'll show you how we did it.'"
On Wednesday, Patrick said it would be a "tribute" to the Martin family if Massachusetts lawmakers passed a bill to crack down on racial profiling in traffic stops. Those comments came on the same day that a handful of Massachusetts lawmakers donned hoodies to express solidarity with the Martin family and decry some commentary in the wake of the shooting that Martin's hoodie was partly to blame for the incident.
Copyright State House News Service