There is nothing wrong with a police officer having a gut feeling, or forming a tentative conclusion about someone's guilt or innocence - provided she or he keeps in mind the possibility of being wrong. No amount of experience, intelligence or clairvoyance justifies skipping basic steps in an investigation. And make no mistake: the vast majority of people in law enforcement understand this.
President Obama says he's pleased to hear that Florida Gov. Rick Scott has named a task force to investigate the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was returning home from the store in Sanford, Fla., last month when he was confronted and killed by 28-year-old neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. The task force became necessary when the community realized that the Sanford police department had bungled the investigation.
Police and prosecutors initially called it justifiable homicide - the shooter told a story that made it sound like he had to shoot Martin in self-defense. But police suppressed a 9-1-1 tape that suggested otherwise. The public explanation was that it would compromise an ongoing investigation. It has since come out that the "investigation" extended to testing the victim for drugs and alcohol but not the shooter.
The local prosecutor has recused himself from the case and the local police chief has temporarily stepped down, both saying they felt they acted properly and could continue to act properly but didn't want contrary views of their own behavior to be a distraction to the investigation. Neither acted properly but their professed concern for the community perception of the investigation is commendable.
Some of the more heated criticism has been fueled by numerous incidents in other cities of black men shot to death only to find them were innocent, unarmed citizens. The police in Sanford, Fla., are not responsible for those other incidents, and I think it would be cynical of me to simply assume they are motivated by racism while excoriating them for the assumptions they appear to have made. But any reasonable observer would acknowledge that an investigation which looks for evidence of wrongdoing by the victim but does not include even the most cursory check of the shooter's story is (a) wrong, and (b) stupid.
The investigators in that town have embarrassed brother officers everywhere else. Perhaps their performance going forward can redeem their reputation.