By Deborah Ramirez, professor of law, Northeastern University School of Law, and Tara Lai Quinlan, a New York attorney. Professor Ramirez is founder of the Partnering for Prevention and Community Safety Initiative (PfP), and she recently testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on the Trayvon Martin killing. Ms. Quinlan is director of the Partnering for Prevention and Community Safety Initiative (PfP), and is pursuing an LLM in Criminal Law, Criminology & Criminal Justice at King’s College London, focusing on racial profiling and community policing in the United Kingdom.
Local law enforcement officials may not have fired the shot that killed Trayvon Martin, but police and policymakers are responsible for the systemic failures that contributed to this tragedy, and must address them in concrete steps to ensure that other innocent young men do not die needlessly.
One of the most important systemic flaws highlighted by this tragedy is that private security officers and volunteer community patrols have increasingly assumed law enforcement duties from cash-strapped police departments. Today one in three policing related dollars is actually spent on private security guards and community patrols. In many communities across the country it is not uncommon for private security officers and volunteer community patrols to carry guns, patrol neighborhoods, report suspicious persons in the neighborhood, and deter unwanted people from entering or hanging out in the neighborhood. Cash-strapped police department often welcome private security officers and volunteer community patrols because they can serve as eyes and ears in local communities where police cannot be as often.
The increased privatization of law enforcement duties like neighborhood patrolling raises important questions about government accountability and government oversight. While police departments like Sanford routinely try to distance themselves from legal accountability when citizens like George Zimmerman take the law into their own hands, law enforcement officials are ultimately responsible for keeping our communities safe. Where was the training and oversight for Zimmerman about handling and reporting suspicious activity in the neighborhood? Where is the training for the throngs of other George Zimmermans across the country? While police officers are responsible for every bullet fired, where is similar accountability for private security officers and volunteer community patrols?
There is currently no overarching national infrastructure in place providing a mechanism of accountability and oversight of private security officers and volunteer community patrols. And as the Trayvon Martin shooting makes clear, there can be no question that law enforcement officials must be accountable for training private security officers and volunteer community patrols. Given the pervasiveness of private security officers and volunteer community patrols on the streets of local communities, law enforcement must be involved in the training of private security officers and volunteer community patrols regarding issues of racial profiling, de-escalating potentially violent situations, and the use of force. Police also have a responsibility to train private security officers and volunteer community patrols on the limits of their authority. While private security officers and volunteer community patrols may think they are acting like police, or like Zimmerman (who once enrolled in a sheriff’s training academy) may even want to become police officers, they are not police officers and they do not have police powers. When private security officers and volunteer community patrols abuse their authority or go beyond the limits of their job duties, they must be held legally accountable by the law. Police departments must be vigilant in arresting, investigating and prosecuting them, and where appropriate, taking steps to revoke their license to carry firearms.
Further, the federal government also has a key role to play, and must now fund a national community-policing resource centerfor training local police departments to help them develop and implement collaborative strategies for private security and volunteer patrols to combat local violent and property crimes without racial profiling or unnecessary use of force. The training center would use replicable training modules that local police could take back to communities to train private and volunteer patrols.
The death of Trayvon Martin is tragic; his death cannot be in vain. Police accountability for private security and volunteer patrols and federal funding of a national community-policing resource center are imperative that must be taken in the wake of this tragedy.
[image via werthmedia]