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Police chief in Florida tries to ease old tensions

By CARA BUCKLEY

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:37 a.m. HST, Jun 17, 2013



SANFORD, Fla. » Within days of becoming police chief of this small city outside Orlando, Cecil E. Smith began to see clearly the scope of the challenges he faced.

There were grumblings from within the police department's ranks: At least one supervisor said he did not want to work for a black man. Out on the streets, some black residents voiced misgivings of a different sort. Smith may have been black, but he was a Northerner. How could he ever understand them? "This has been a slave town forever," one resident said to Smith in a low voice. "There are people who still feel white people are the devil. You're not from here. You don't understand."

Peering through his glasses, Smith locked eyes with the man, he later recalled. "Enlighten me," he said, "So I can enlighten my people."

The department Smith now heads, and the city it serves, is in the arduous stages of trying to integrate lessons drawn from the episode that brought infamy to Sanford 16 months ago. The fatal shooting in February 2012 of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, compelled many to assert that racial profiling and citizen vigilantism had taken place.

Sandford's police department became the focus of much of the rage. That the agency neither arrested nor charged Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, was taken by some as proof not only of ineptness but also of bias. This seemed especially true after a special prosecutor, who was appointed by the governor, charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Had Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, been black, many believed, he would have not been released on claims of self-defense. His trial began here with jury selection last week.

Since the shooting, city officials and religious leaders have labored to soothe tensions. The police chief who oversaw the Zimmerman case, Bill Lee, was fired. An interfaith coalition of pastors was formed. After the Justice Department turned down the city's request to review the police department's practices, a panel of community leaders was assembled to assess relations between the community and the police.

The biggest hurdle remains: the decades-old animus between black residents and the police department.

"The black community, they don't trust the Sanford police," said Turner Clayton Jr., president of the Seminole County NAACP. "They trust the sheriff's office and any other agency more."

Responsibility for mending relations has largely fallen on the shoulders of Smith, 52, a balding, soft-spoken man from Chicago's West Side.

Before besting 75 other candidates for the job, which he began on April 1, Smith spent 26 years in law enforcement in Elgin, Ill., where he investigated drugs and gangs, worked in community relations and rose to deputy chief. His own family is a picture of diversity. He and his wife of 15 years, who is white, have parented five children between them, and one of his goddaughters is a lesbian.

After arriving in Sanford, Smith brought in strategies he honed in Elgin. At community events, he doles out hugs. Every Thursday afternoon, he and a dozen or so officers go door to door in a different neighborhood - introducing themselves with smiles, pumping hands, scribbling down names and numbers, asking if there are problems that the police can address.

This outreach has left locals both gobsmacked and delighted. "I've been here 30 years and I didn't know you did this," one woman said during an outing last week.

The chief has also been spotted in plain clothes late at night chatting with people in Goldsboro, a historic black neighborhood. "I saw him mingling with teenagers," said Cindy Philemon, who works at the Goldsboro Westside Historical Museum. "All I could do was smile. My heart was filled with joy. Before, it was like neglect."

But local black leaders say it is too early to deem Smith's leadership a success, especially because the department remains more or less unchanged.

"Two months won't take away six decades. It just can't," said Kenneth Bentley, a community activist and educator. "At the end of the day he's still chief over those officers that have the same mentality."

While the enmity toward the police is rooted in Sanford's segregationist past, black residents and leaders said it has been fueled by ongoing mistreatment and what they describe as the agency's failure to thoroughly investigate the shooting deaths of many young black men - an assertion the police dispute.

"The Trayvon Martin case just happened to bring it to a boiling point," said Velma Williams, the city's only black commissioner. "Those feelings have been there long before."

Smith said he is addressing any hints of bias in his department. After learning about the supervisor who complained of his appointment, Smith called a meeting. "I was informed someone didn't want to work for a black chief," he recalled telling the quiet room. "If you don't want to work for me, there's the door."

He recently appointed a longtime Sanford law enforcement officer, Darren Scott, who is black, as his deputy chief. Smith is not the department's first black chief, but this is the first time people can recall two black men holding the department's top spots. Just over half of his officers are male and white, and Smith is eying more diversity in recruits.

City leaders, including Williams, insist they have faith in the new chief. "This guy is highly focused on rebuilding that trust, doing what's right for the community," said Mayor Jeff Triplett. "I don't see him stopping."

Restoring trust, the mayor said, "was the main crux of what we thought we needed to repair."

Still, critics questioned the staying power of the department's outreach efforts once the Zimmerman trial ends and the intense national attention drifts. Promises and efforts made before, they said, have all sputtered out.

At the very least, some residents say the aftermath of Martin's shooting forced city leaders to give a hard look at issues that many felt had gone unaddressed for too long.

"The untold story of Sanford would never have been told," said Bentley, "if one person had let another person walk through the neighborhood."






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