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Take A Bite Out of Crime (Not the Life Out of a Boy)

Posted by Francie Latour  March 27, 2012 11:59 PM

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And now here comes the grainy, only-here-and-next-at-11 security camera footage of George Zimmerman, neighborhood watch captain and admitted killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. We all know no American justice drama is complete without surveillance videotape. And the images released yesterday were like racial accelerant in a legal and media landscape already on fire, showing Zimmerman in custody and apparently uninjured shortly following the shooting -- despite statements from his supporters that he was seriously hurt in a "fight to the death" instigated by Martin.

So far, debate has swirled around whether or not Zimmerman should be classified as white or brown. Now, it seems, we will be enlarging and freeze-framing to determine if he is bloodied and red, or black and blue.

To the consternation of crime watch advocates everywhere, Zimmerman has now become the iconic face of the concerned and watchful American on patrol. And that got me thinking about my very first introduction to the concept of ordinary citizens taking responsibility for their community's safety -- when the face of the neighborhood crime watch wasn't a white face or a black face or a face of debatable origin, but the face of a trusty dog in a trench coat.

If you're under the age of 30, you may have no idea what I'm talking about. But for a
generation of Americans who grew up on vintage 80s television, McGruff the Crime Dog
was the original avatar of public safety, crime prevention and most of all, the noble citizen patrol. Back then, the cartoon bloodhound with the Columbo shuffle was literally everywhere -- covering postage stamps, taping anti-drug commercials with a teenage Drew Barrymore (who was then on drugs), and generally carrying his message coast to coast through thousands of costumed police officers, who personified the character in countless crime-watch trainings and school assemblies.

In many ways, McGruff was ground zero for the formation and proliferation of modern-day neighborhood watch groups across America. He continues to serve as the face of the National Crime Prevention Council, which was formed 30 years ago with one mission: "to forge a nationwide commitment by people acting individually and together to prevent crime and build safer, more caring communities," according to the organization's website.

McGruff's influence has waned dramatically in recent years. That's unfortunate, because right now we could use his gravelly, common-sense public service announcements to remind us what an actual suspicious criminal scenario looks like, and what an appropriate crime-watch response looks like.

A large swath of Americans seem convinced that Zimmerman's actions on the nightmof the shooting constituted standard operating procedure for neighborhood watch patrol. In reality, Zimmerman's actions that night constituted extreme vigilantism. Even crime watch crusaders who've been called vigilantes themselves are calling Zimmerman a vigilante. Like Guardian Angels founder and New York talk-show host Curtis Sliwa, who penned a letter to the editor in the New York Times this week calling Zimmerman a "self-appointed guardian."

"Unfortunately, Mr. Zimmerman has become the face of the average citizen patroler, and that is an outrage," Sliwa wrote, before likening Zimmerman to Robert DeNiro's nihilistic Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. When a guy who has admitted faking heroic rescues on subways for publicity compares you to Bickle, you've got problems. Nationally, crime watch volunteers and organiziations have come forward to either denounce Zimmerman or cast serious doubt on his judgment and competency.

In voicing their concern and outrage, they are pointing out the same lessons McGruff demonstrated in his public awareness campaigns. They were instructive then, and for very different reasons they're instructive now. Take the classic 1981 commercial, preserved for
posterity on YouTube, in which McGruff stands on a neighborhood street corner and calmly points us to a crime in progress.  Not a suspicious-looking person who doesn't look like he belongs. A crime in progress.

"Hey. McGruff here," the spot opens. "See that guy? He's stealing that bike." Indeed, said guy is furtively hoisting a 10-speed into the back of an open van.

"Now, see that lady?" the bloodhound asks. And the camera pans to Mimi, a woman well into her 70s with a walkie-talkie the length of an Italian sub. "She's calling the police . . . part of
the eyes and ears of Hartford, Conn." Later, we meet Albert, another patroler who calls a break-in to police headquarters. "Albert calls the cops fast, and the cops pick the guy up fast. Way to go, Albert." Right now that kudo could be read at least two ways: Way to go in not ignoring crime in your neighborhood, and way to go in heeding the authority of law enforcement -- as opposed to taking the law into your own hands and shooting at will.

No one knows exactly what happened in the moment Zimmerman pulled the trigger. But as each side tries to demonize the other -- Trayvon was a pot-smoking thug, Zimmerman is a pathological liar and protected son of court-official parents -- it's worth reminding ourselves that the matter at hand has to do with whether an armed and pursuing citizen became the criminal himself when he took the life of another citizen who was unarmed.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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