When I was 20 years old and still in college, I was considering but had not yet committed to a career as a police officer. You could say I was something of a “wannabe cop.” I was stopped at a traffic light about a mile from my home when I heard a scream and some commotion somewhere behind me. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw an elderly woman splayed out on the sidewalk and a boy of about 16 running away from her and across the street just behind my car. He was carrying a purse.
It did not require the deductive powers of a Hercule Poirot to infer what was happening: the boy had knocked the woman down and stolen her purse, and was now making his getaway. And I had a decision to make. Should I take action, or should I mind my own business and continue on my way? And if I took action, of what sort? Should I go and help the woman, or should I chase the robber, perhaps risking a violent or even deadly response if I was to catch him?
The light changed to green, and I drove down the street in the direction the robber had gone. I saw him on the sidewalk, now walking but still carrying the purse. He eyed me warily as I drove past and parked a few houses ahead of him. I got out of my car with the only weapon I had available to me, a large metal flashlight. Seeing this, the robber changed course and ran down a driveway and into the backyard of a small apartment building. I followed, and when I came down the driveway, the robber scaled the back wall and jumped into the adjacent alley. He started running east, the direction he had been heading before I stopped. I too jumped the wall and ran after him.
Unknown to the robber or to me, the alley reached a dead end not far away, bringing us into what could have been an unpleasant confrontation. I mustered up all the bravado I could and told him to stop and lie down on the ground, and to my great relief he did just that. I shouted for someone to call the police, then waited over the robber in the hope they would come quickly. While I waited, the robber made an attempt to get up and flee, but I pushed him back on the ground and threatened to brain him with my flashlight if he tried it again.
In due course a police officer arrived, and I recall well the robber’s reaction on seeing him. “What’s happenin’?” he asked, as though greeting some dear friend. “These handcuffs are what’s happening,” said the officer, and soon the robber was in the backseat of a black-and-white and on his way to the police station. Not his first trip, I would later learn, and most likely not his last.
Some might have considered my pursuit of the purse snatcher a foolhardy act. The cautious yet responsible thing to do, they would argue, would have been to go and help the fallen woman and add my account and description to the police report that would be made, a report which, I am certain, would have come to nothing more than a piece of paper being moved from one police station in-box to another for a few days before being completely forgotten.
I was reminded of this chapter from my past when the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin controversy exploded into national awareness. My pursuit of the purse snatcher ended as well as these things can: the woman got her purse back, she wasn’t seriously injured, and the guilty party was punished, however slightly. But it could have turned out otherwise. The purse snatcher might have had a gun and shot me. He might have wrested the flashlight from my control and hit me with it. Or he might have resisted to the point that I had to hit him in the head with the flashlight, seriously injuring or even killing him. And if that happened, would I have been arrested and put on trial?
I should add at this point that the purse snatcher was black, a fact I didn’t consider relevant at the time but, given George Zimmerman’s ordeal, do now. It’s true that the incident I describe and the Martin-Zimmerman encounter are not directly analogous. I had witnessed a crime occur (or its immediate aftermath) while Zimmerman merely entertained a suspicion that one was about to occur. I was not armed with a gun while Zimmerman was. And though there was a very brief struggle between me and the purse snatcher, neither of us was hurt, much less killed.
Trayvon Martin was not so lucky. And, though he survived, George Zimmerman was only somewhat more so. But now he’s had his trial and, after all the evidence was aired, won his acquittal. He is free to resume his life as circumstances now allow. And yet he’s as demonized today as if the trial hadn’t happened. The trial, the evidence, and the jurors be damned, no force on earth will disabuse some people of their cherished beliefs.
I believe the verdict (which I predicted here and here) was the proper one, indeed the only one that could have been rendered given an impartial examination of the evidence. And yet as I write this, I await directions to report to this or that area of Los Angeles where anti-Zimmerman demonstrations are getting out of hand. It’s possible that LAPD officers will soon come into violent contact with the demonstrators, an incident that will no doubt be recorded on countless smart phones and tweeted and YouTubed and googled and what have you-ed until the next controversy eclipses that of Trayvon Martin. I hope no one gets hurt. But if someone is, I hope it’s not me who hurts him.