How the Sanford PD repaired its community relations after the Trayvon Martin case

“We became famous over an incident that was not police-related but got world-wide recognition”


Before the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident developed in Sanford, Florida, the Sanford Police Department was just a normal agency engaging in its daily public safety functions.

“We were nobody. We became famous over an incident that was not police-related but got world-wide recognition,” said Deputy Chief Darren Scott.

Prior to the current chief, Cecil Smith, arriving in Sanford to take over the leadership role around a year after the Zimmerman incident, he was aware of tales about how the Sanford PD was dysfunctional, had a lack of support from the community and was under a constant reorganization. After serving 25 years in the Elgin, Illinois Police Department, Smith retired as deputy chief, and he was no novice to police work. He had a reputation for being progressive and open-minded with the ability to listen to people.

Police Chief Cecil Smith. (Photo/Sanford PD)
Police Chief Cecil Smith. (Photo/Sanford PD)

Smith was aware that in a three-year period, there were five different department heads that attempted to run the Sanford PD. In addition, he had heard about the racial divide inside the department as well as in the community. He also knew there was a disconnect between the department, the community and city hall. Officers reportedly felt brow beaten and had given up in submission.

“It was a little interesting coming into the agency, “ Smith said.

Before Smith made a decision to go out into the Sanford community, he knew he had to meet and listen to his officers.

“I met every single individual in the police department individually,” he said. With his arrival, there were new officers who were excited and older, tenured officers who felt they never had a voice.

“One of the first things we needed to do was break up cliques,” Smith said. He reassigned people in order to increase department efficiency. He also gave officers an opportunity to express their concerns to the chief and command staff.

Internal support and changes

Smith was keenly aware that he needed support; thus, he made Captain Darren Scott his second in command and promoted him to deputy chief. Scott had been there during the Zimmerman incident and understood what had transpired. Tony Aimondo became his strong number three man and currently serves as a captain.

“We made the changes within the organization,” Smith said. He ensured there was an open line of communication. He made it clear that he has an open door policy and that officers could come and talk to him about their concerns. “They actually came,” he said.

In addition, Smith hired a professional public information officer, a former English teacher turned cop. They began rebranding the department, which was seen negatively, from an autocratic organization to a democratic one, according to Smith. He held monthly meetings at which time officers could discuss their concerns with command staff.

“We had to rebuild the organization. We had to rebuild the integrity and trust,” Smith said.

Rebuilding community trust

Next, the police department put boots on the ground and went out into the community. Smith, who had a background of robust community policing, knew the importance of doing “walk and talks” which involved officers, the mayor, the city manager and department heads walking into communities, knocking on doors and talking with residents. The first time they did so was in the middle of a rain storm.

Residents were surprised to see the officers out in their communities knocking on doors in inclement weather.

“We did this a year straight. We did it every week, once a week for the first year. We were on a mission to sell ourselves. The community engages more so now than before. Now, we get tips on crime and solve more crime. The community trusts us more,” Scott said.

The Zimmerman trial had not taken place yet.

“We tried to explain this was not a police matter. George Zimmerman acted on his own. He was arrested and charged. He was released,” Smith said. They explained if residents were angry, they should not be angry with the police, but with the State’s Attorney who made the decision.

When they started, the officers learned the black community was angry with city hall. The first four to six meetings, they incorporated department heads such as the Director of Public Works, Planning, Streets and Sanitation, among others, who also went out into the community with the police. Thus, residents became acquainted with who they were and rather than be angry with the police about every community aspect, they could go to the directors of the various departments directly to voice their specific concerns.

In addition, the police helped educate the community with use of the pastors. The police taught the pastors what occurs in the department and courts so that they could understand the jargon and explain the situation to others. There was a rotation of pastors from jury selection to trials. They were also trained on Fair and Impartial policing.

In 2012, more than 20,000 people showed up in Sanford for a march for peace and justice. Protest areas were set up where people could congregate. The police did a great deal of information sharing.

“We were on the forefront of being as transparent as we could be,” Smith said.

In addition, social media was utilized to put out information, both good and bad.

“We are very vested into social media feeds,” Smith said. The police integrated into the schools, attended meetings of the NAACP, ACLU, and various mentoring programs. The department created a community relations unit that had focused teams that concentrated in various sectors. The department hired Asian, Hispanic and Muslim officers.

Transparency

The department began to utilize body cameras for transparency and to protect the officers. The department consists of 132 officers, and every officer on the street has a body camera. Moreover, Sanford was the first agency in central Florida to go through Fair and Impartial policing, and every officer has been trained on it.

“We have done a lot of things that are unique. I allow my guys to come up with ideas and allow them autonomy to go out and do things. Before, everything was from the top down. Now, it is from down to up,” Scott said. “There is a paradigm shift in law enforcement now. We cannot police the same way as we did 15 years ago. Administrators need to realize this and adapt to this. We just have to change with the environment. If we don’t we will operate behind the curve. The officer makes the badge. The badge does not make the officer. Always treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Sanford has demonstrated a major transformation in light of the events that occurred in its jurisdiction. Despite the fact that the incident was not a police matter, the police department can be proud of the way the men and women who were there during the incident handled the reaction from the community and carried themselves. For those who remain in the department from that time, they can share information and provide insight on what to do and what no to do to be better in doing their jobs.

“We all got through this together,” Scott said. And, together, they have shown how far they have come.

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