Contradictions: the Law Versus Police and Public Safety Campaigns

There is an aspect to the Zimmerman trial that has been under-addressed in spite of the attention devoted to it.

That issue is that while following a person is legal, (unless there is a restraining order/order of protection in place, or unless it violates an anti-stalking law), being followed is generally perceived as suspicious and threatening, and the public is consistently advised  by law enforcement and other authority to be aware of it and to fear it.

The legality of an action is not the appropriate metric of suspicious or threatening behavior.

This seems to have been a key factor in the Zimmerman trial, with the defense noting, quite correctly, that following someone is not illegal, but I would argue they were wrong to claim it was not something which could be held against George Zimmerman. The presumption and flaw in that logic is to equate legal with legitimate or not causing concern or fear.

This contradicts not only my personal experience, but every directive by police and self-defense instructors to children and adults I have ever encountered, beginning with my experience in elementary school, where we were taught as early as kindergarten to be aware and concerned if someone followed us home from school, to and from the bus stop, or during interactions with friends in our neighborhoods. We were to tell adults immediately, reporting it to our school, to police, to our parents.

In 7th grade, during the section on babysitting skills in Home Economics classes, we were taught we should be concerned and alarmed if we were followed in a public place, for ourselves, and to protect the children in our care.  We were told to be aware, and emphatically we were told to be concerned, not to try to speculate on or justify why we were being followed.  This was part of our official educational materials, specifically included in the curricula, part of the printed brochures provided by local law enforcement.  (The brochures were created for the general public, not just tween and teen babysitters.)

In my sociology class in high school, we had a presentation by local law enforcement on crime and safety that included a repetition of the same thing – be aware, be concerned, someone following you is suspicious behavior that could likely precede robbery, rape, or worse.

In college, same thing, be aware of anyone following you – and by anyone, it was stressed that adult men were the greatest concern, individually or in groups.  No distinction was made regarding the race or age of the adult  following you, and it was information provided to both men and women students and staff.

When I went to work for a large international corporation after college, the company hosted local law enforcement safety and self-defense classes for employees on the company premises, and all employees were strongly encouraged to attend. The same message was repeated over and over: be aware of being followed, be concerned, act on that concern for your personal safety.

After I bought my first house, I participated in the formation of a neighborhood watch and held a block party for the ‘take back the night’ celebration. Local law enforcement provide a presentation on what we could do to reduce or prevent crime, and on personal safety.  We were told, specifically, NOT to follow anyone behaving suspiciously or even whom we had observed commit an actual crime, as this was both dangerous to ourselves, and made the job of law enforcement more difficult and confusing in identifying who was the good guy and who was the bad guy, in simplistic terms.  We were told clearly, if we followed someone, WE would be behaving suspiciously; anyone following us was behaving suspiciously and should be regarded as a threat.

In every case of law enforcement presentations on personal safety, self defense, addressing the dangers in being followed,  confrontation was consistently addressed as one of the valid and sometimes useful responses, although not the most recommended option.

When I was a child, around 4-5 years old, my father bought a very flashy sports car, a ‘rag top’, for my mother to drive.  I thought riding around with the top down was a lot of fun, but in the three months that we had the car, my mother, who was generally considered to be a very attractive woman, was followed home repeatedly while driving that car, by men, mostly a single man, but a few times two men, in strange cars.  These incidents occurred about equally during the daytime and at night; night time was scarier.  Most of the time, the followers would pull into the driveway behind the car, and then leave.  My mother always pulled the car into the garage, opening the garage door with a garage door opener when we were a half a block away, and then immediately closing the garage door behind her, as a protective barrier to the followers. In every instance, the police filed a report, and confirmed this was a danger.

On several occasions, the men in the cars did not leave immediately, but instead got out of their cars and approached the house and attached garage. Those incidents resulted in filing stronger complaints from my parents to police, who showed up in person, took statements, including the license plate number information we provided.  The police officers stressed to my parents that it was the wrong thing to do to go directly home when followed, because this provided a potential criminal with the information of where you lived, enabling them to return later to do harm, possibly better prepared, armed, and/or with someone else to help them.  Emphatically, going home when followed was  discouraged by the LEOs. My parents’ solution was just to get rid of the ‘fun’ car after the third time law enforcement came to the house.

The repeated admonitions over the years that being followed was bad, and NOT to let someone follow you home resonated very much for me in the context of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident.

Given how emphatically law enforcement had stressed avoiding having someone following you home, and given the attention being followed is promoted as suspicious and threatening behavior, without attributing any motive to the decision, it seems oddly deficient that the prosecution did not make that point during the Zimmerman trial.  It also seems to me a very good reason that the Florida and other states with SYG laws should amend them consistent with the proposed Trayvon Martin legislation that would remove SYG as a defense in cases where the shooter follows or pursues the person they shoot.

We can’t have it both ways; either we should stop the police and others advising people to be afraid when they are being followed, or we should not excuse it as legal and legitimate behavior.  Because otherwise we are creating an effective conflict between what law enforcement and other public and personal safety experts tell us, and the law as it applies to following someone who becomes a victim, in our courts of law.