For black Sanford residents, a history of distrusting police

theGRIO REPORT - When Sanford's black residents talk about the 'good old boy' network, they often mean the Sanford police department, which for many, embodies the worst aspects of the old south...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When Sanford’s black residents talk about the “good old boy” network, they often mean the Sanford police department, which for many, embodies the worst aspects of the old south.

“You’ve got the Mississippi Delta, and you’ve got the ‘bottom.’ This is the ‘bottom,’” says community activist Kenneth Bentley, whose family is among the oldest in the black district known as Goldsboro. Before Sanford dissolved its charter and absorbed it in 1911, Goldsboror was Florida’s oldest black city, after Eatonville. The elementary school across the street from the gated community where Trayvon Martin was killed February 26th is named for Bentley’s aunt, Altomese Bentley, who was a longtime educator in the community.

His words echo many in this community, who have little faith in Sanford police.

“If you stand outside Sunshine Liquor Store and drink a beer they’ll arrest you in a heartbeat,” Bentley said of the policing in the Goldsboro neighborhood by Sanford police, “But if you get hit in the head or your house gets broken into, don’t even call.”

Bentley says one problem is a lack of familiarity between police officers and black residents, particularly in the two largest black enclaves, Goldsboro and Georgetown, where high crime and poverty rates pose a constant challenge for both residents and police, who are not required to live in the city to work here.

“They don’t know Junebug and Bobo and Skeet, so they don’t care what happened to Junebug and Bobo and Skeet,” Bentley said, “And they send white officers out here who don’t want to be in this area.” And so, he said, crimes against the residents here go unsolved.

Black residents of the low income community spoke of hearing people who sit on their front porches during the day referred to by officers as “porch monkeys,” and complaints from police about having to do Martin Luther King Day parade detail. “They call Goldsboro a ghetto, a cesspool…” one resident said.

Sanford police aren’t commenting, but a source close to the department says the approximately 120 officers who police this city of 53,000 have a history of strong initial action and crime scene investigation, but weak follow up on cases involving people of all races. The source also said Sanford is a small town with big city policing requirements. Though Seminole County is considered one of Florida’s wealthiest, Sanford, located in its heart, is low income — home to roughly eight in ten of the county’s poorest neighborhoods.

“Sanford is the ghetto of Seminole County,” one longtime resident said.

A history of unsolved crimes

The rift between Sanford’s black residents and police didn’t start with Trayvon Martin. Locals tell of former police chief Roy G. Williams, who was chief from the 1920s through the 1960s, and who used to take prisoners from the jail and force them to work on his farm in Georgia. He was eventually jailed for the practice.

The previous chief, Brian Tooley, the third longest serving chief at 14 years on the job in Sanford, was forced to retire a month early last January after officers failed to arrest Justin Collisin, a police lieutenant’s son who beat up a homeless black man, Sherman Ware, in an incident captured on cellphone video that went viral.

And while Tooley was an outsider, as the son of a longtime New York cop, the current chief, who everyone in Sanford calls “Billy” Lee — not the more formal “Bill,” as he is referred to in the media — is seen as just another good old boy. He was brought in after a search process that many Sanford residents didn’t trust. And his department’s handling of the Trayvon Martin case — apparently under Lee’s personal direction — led to a “no confidence” vote by the city commission, prompting Lee to announce he was temporarily stepping down the week before last.

But Bentley, who runs a community after school program for local youth, says Lee is only the latest symptom of a long term problem. “This is generational,” he said, “This is decades of abuse. It didn’t just happen.”

To illustrate that, Bentley reels off a list of incidents he says preceded Trayvon Martin’s killing on February 26th, each of which has eaten away at this city’s black residents.

There was Dennis Williams — shot to death while holding his nine-month-old baby in his arms outside a housing project in 2010. His murder remains unsolved.

Nicholas Eugene Scott was fatally shot by a Sanford police officer outside a local Winn Dixie supermarket after officers said Scott tried to run them over as they attempted to serve a warrant on him for violating probation. The cops were later cleared, and the officer who shot Scott, Steve Lynch, was promoted by Sheriff Lee, along with four other officers, including one who was on the scene of the Trayvon Martin shooting, on the same day Lee stepped down temporarily last Thursday. “It was a slap in the face to this community,” Bentley said.

Perhaps the most troubling case was that of Brian Robinson, 24, whose body was found in a wooded area hours after his family reported him missing in November 2011. He was allegedly accused by a local man of breaking into his home, and Bentley said a group of black men were seen driving from house to house in Goldsboro with Robinson in their car, asking people to identify him. His parents got a call later that night saying Robinson’s body had been found. He reportedly had been beaten, pistol whipped, shot in the head and his body dumped by the side of the road. To date, there have been no arrests.

“That’s what the Klan used to do to us,” Bentley said.

TheGrio submitted requests for police reports on the cases, and has yet to receive a response from Sanford police, whose records department is filtering all media requests, including for reports on cases other than Trayvon Martin’s, through it’s public information officer.

Meanwhile, the NAACP, which held a public hearing on black community concerns about police, has said it will turn over the information relayed to its president, Ben Jealous, to the Department of Justice for review.

For residents who spoke to theGrio, it didn’t matter whether the assailants were white or black, civilian or in uniform. If the victims were black, they say the police don’t do much, and often don’t bother to make an arrest — especially when the shooter has ties to law enforcement.

That seemed true in the Ware case, and in the case of Travares McGill, who was shot in the back after being pursued in his car by two white security guards, William Patrick Swofford and Bryan Ansley, who were, respectively, a volunteer with the Sanford police department and the son of a former Sanford officer.

It took months for the men to be arrested and charged, and a judge eventually dismissed the charges on grounds of self-defense. Ansley would go on to be arrested two more times, including for impersonating a police officer.

But it is the Trayvon Martin shooting that has finally focused national attention on a problem black Sanford residents say they’ve been facing for decades.

“They’re talking about Trayvon Martin,” Bentley said, “We’ve got a thousand Trayvon Martins.”

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport