In Sanford, the face of authority is increasingly black

SANFORD, Fla. — At a promotion ceremony Monday for two officers under his command — one white, one black — Chief Cecil Smith reiterated what has become a mantra for him: Sanford can and should have the finest police force in Florida. And any officer who doen’t care to help make it so, should find the door.

Smith, who is black, is leading a force in a city where the leadership has become conspicuously diverse. During that ceremony, Smith promoted James McAuliffe to captain, and an African-American officer, Darren Scott, to deputy chief. On had for the ceremony: Norton Bonaparte, Sanford’s city manager, also black, hired from outside the city just over a year ago.

On April 1st, Smith took over the job some wondered whether anyone would want, after a 44-day delay in arresting neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Miami teenager Trayvon Martin last year sparked protests across the U.S. and in London, England. Eventually, the controversy forced then-chief Bill Lee out.

The Martin shooting tore open longstanding wounds between Sanford’s black community and its police department, with residents alleging decades of police harassment of black residents, particularly in the city’s predominantly black Goldsboro and Georgetown neighborhoods, long wait times for police response to their calls to 911, and police favoritism for their own. Residents complain about the officer who shot Nicholas Eugene Scott to death in the parking lot of the local Winn Dixie and was cleared, after a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation found the shooting justified, and that Police Inspector Seven Lynch had fired into Scott’s car after the 23-year-old tried to run down Lynch’s partner, Sgt. Stacie Cabello. Some in Goldsboro don’t believe the official story — it’s common for a question about Sanford police to elicit passionate recitations of Scott’s story, including the fact that Lynch was later promoted by Chief Lee.

Or there’s the police lieutenant’s son, Justin Collison, who was caught on cellphone video punching a local man, Sherman Ware, outside a bar, and not immediately arrested, despite the fact that officers had the video that night in December 2010. Collison was eventually charged with felony battery and disorderly conduct, charges Ware asked prosecutors to drop after Collison’s family reached a settlement with him. Prosecutors refused, and in October 2011, Collison pleaded guilty to misdemeanor batter and was given a year’s probation, and a requirement to undergo anger management and alcohol treatment. The sentencing judge, Circuit Court Debra Nelson, today presides over the George Zimmerman trial.

The previous chief, Brian Tooley, was forced to retire early under pressure from the Collison case. He was eventually replaced by Lee, and many in the black community were critical of the process of selection, which brought a “Billy Lee,” a local man they considered “part of the good old boy network,” into office, including bypassing a black candidate named Michael Blow, who many black leaders had dearly wanted to see at the helm of the force.

Smith was the finalist in what had been a national search for someone to take over a police force weighed down by that mistrust, and to manage the second wave of international media attention, which is expected to return with Zimmerman’s second degree murder trial. (Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty.)

Nest: Pushing for a black chief