The shooting death of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 marked a turning point for many black residents of Sanford, who say their problems with members of the local police force – some of which they say had been going on for years, if not decades – gained national attention for the first time. Now, many of the city’s residents – black and white – are reflecting on how the city has changed over the past year, and anticipating the closure they say will come with a trial.
George Zimmerman, 28, is set to stand trial for second-degree murder in June, unless his case is dismissed in an upcoming Stand Your Ground hearing. Zimmerman is claiming self-defense in the shooting, saying the 17-year-old attacked him.
Changes in the police force
Since the shooting, which sparked waves of protests after Sanford police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, much has changed in Sanford. Then-police chief Bill Lee was fired last June, following a lengthy and contentious process in which the city manager, Norton Bonaparte, grappled with whether to allow him to remain, and the city commission rejected Lee’s attempt to resign.
The city has hired a new chief – Cecil Smith. The Chicago native, who is African-American, will be the fifth man to lead the city’s police force in the just over two years.
Bonaparte said he was looking for a new top cop “who Sanford police officers can look to for leadership” given all the tumult at the top of the department. He says he also sought “an individual with proven experience building an excellent rapport bet the community and the police department.” Bonaparte says he hopes Smith can help build a police department “that the Sanford community respects and trusts,” and where “all segments of the community trust the police department and feel they are respected by the police department.”
“Well any time you go through an experience like that you have to look back and reflect,” says city commissioner Mike McCarty.
McCarty, who is white, was one of three commissioners, including the city’s mayor, Jeff Triplett, to cast a vote of “no confidence” against former chief Bill Lee last year. “I reflect back on all those things of how that was done and the tumbling effect of what we had to go through: the death of a young man but [also] $750,000 in expenses for the city.”
Triplett, who serves as the city’s mayor part time, while also working for a local bank, says he has seen changes in Sanford over the past year. “We‘ve spent a lot of time in meetings, listening to all walks of life discuss not only what transpired but [also] their past feelings, the history; the things that have been weighing heavily on a lot of people’s hearts,” he said.
“I think we’ve changed in the fact that we’re actually opening up some doors — between city hall and the police department, between city hall and the neighborhoods surrounding city hall, and I think everyone has kind of come to a realization that we’ve got to talk about this,” Triplett said, referring to police-community relations that have sometimes frayed along racial lines. “We’ve got some longstanding grudges and some history that have now come out. I don’t think that would have happened if this tragedy wouldn’t have happened.”
Some black Sanford residents expressed relief that the new chief, who begins his tenure April 1st, comes from outside Seminole County, and is not associated with what local black residents call the “good old boys” network. Among them is Francis Oliver, a longtime local activist who runs the black history museum in the historic Goldsboro section of the city, where a memorial to the Miami teen was moved after some residents of the gated community where he died objected to its placement there.
“You know, we had the problem with the police chief,” said Oliver, whose daughter Natalie Jackson is one of the lawyers representing Trayvon Martin’s parents. “Once that was solved, once Billy Lee was fired, and we had an interim chief, things really got rough here in Sanford between what I call the ‘old’ Sanford and the ‘new’ Sanford.”
Former Chief Lee did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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