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Steering your department through a storm

Former Acting Chief in Sanford, Florida addresses challenges facing PD following Trayvon Martin incident

One of central Florida’s oldest incorporated cities, Sanford is located 30 minutes from Orlando and is 90 miles Northeast of Tampa.  It has one of the largest malls in central Florida and is home to the central Florida zoo.  The city of Sanford has recently been put on the worldwide map as a result of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and the arrest of George Zimmerman. 

Consequently, Sanford has become inundated with media attention, vociferous public protests, and a plethora of widespread and divergent emotional reactions.

As a result of this incident, much attention has been focused on the Sanford Police Department.  Media outlets, along with others, have been quick to target the department with unrelenting criticism that has frequently been based on perception rather than bona fide facts. 

Keeping Steady
Amidst the fury this case has evoked among many entities, the Sanford Police Department must continue to diligently conduct its law enforcement duties on a daily basis and provide public service to both the citizens and visitors of Sanford.  The daily departmental challenges have escalated as a result of the public outcry and worldwide attention that has been directed both to the city and to the police department.

Then-acting Police Chief Darren Scott — a Sanford police captain, Scott filled in as head of the department during the search for an interim chief — acknowledged that the city of Sanford has found itself in unchartered waters and that many states have not had an event of this nature. 

“We take one step at a time.  Were we prepared for this?  Absolutely not, but we have dealt with it.  We had contingencies in place as we received intelligence on different things,” Scott said. 

Scott has been employed with the Sanford Police Department for 23 years.  He has worked every aspect of the department including uniformed patrol, investigations, Internal Affairs, selective enforcement and administration.  He also previously served in the military, and he fully understands the importance of team work.  “I know how important team effort is and can be,” he said.

The staff of the Sanford Police Department has continued to work together in a professional manner.   They have bonded and have remained strong as a team despite the upheaval that has unfolded in the city.  “Throughout all this, you see one thing in the press.  In the city, it’s totally the opposite.  We get support from the community daily — that’s not out in the media.  The public is only getting one side of the story.  It’s not as bad as what it appears to be,” Acting Chief Scott said.

Media Circus
Though there have not been a lot of homicides in the city of Sanford, the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case has served as a catalyst to recall some historical issues concerning race relations that occurred in the past.  “A lot of history has caught up with the city.  This case initially wasn’t a Black and White issue.  It was sensationalized by the media as a Black/White issue,” Scott said.  The Stand Your Ground Law was brought into play.  “The media took it and ran with it,” Scott told PoliceOne.  

“My condolences go out to the family for losing a loved one in this case.  I, for one, want justice in this case,” Scott said.  Despite all that has occurred in Sanford, Scott acknowledged the police officers along with the civilians in the department have been remarkable.  “I am so proud of the men and women of the Sanford Police Department.  It makes me emotional to talk about it.  Those behind the scenes have stood up,” he said.  

Protesters and rabble rousers congregated in the city of Sanford.  An entourage of media outlets camped out in the city as well.  As everyone came into the city, intelligence was gathered; the Sanford Police Department had to deal with everything on the spot.  On a daily basis, the department has received intelligence about different threats—not directly on officers themselves-- but from an outpouring of the incident itself.  “As law enforcement officers, we have to consider the worst case scenario.  We don’t want innocent people to get hurt here.  We have to step up our game,” Scott said.

Members of the Sanford Police Department are human like everyone else.  “It takes its toll.  Everyone has helped us through all this.  I have made it a point to attend our daily briefings and visit staff to see how they’re doing,” Acting Chief Scott said.
Many are concerned about how the Chief is holding up amidst the chaos that has struck the city. “They motivate me.  I really can’t describe it.  I have received call from chiefs of police around the country.  They support us.  We’re a big fraternity no matter where you’re at.  Whatever you need, we’re here for you,”
Scott said.

In addition, phone calls, visitors, mail, and emails have been received from citizens showing support for the Sanford Police Department.  The citizens are in the best position to analyze the police department.  “The response we have received has been positive over all.  A lot of the negative things you’re hearing are coming from the press and not from the residents in the city,” Scott said.

While serving as Acting Chief, Scott had to keep the police department focused.  “We have to provide law enforcement duties and can’t get caught up in the hype. I try not to get up in all the rhetoric,” he said.  Scott made a point to keep the men and women of the department informed.  “We can’t stop and wait until it’s over with.  I try to take one day at a time and move forward from this,” he said.  He has tried to bring in as many resources as he can to help deal with this situation, and everyone is helping each other.

Keeping Focused
Scott told his officers that the job is their responsibility first and foremost.  He ensured that he has a daily presence among the members of his department, and he keeps the lines of communication open.  “The administration in any department has a tendency to stay away from the men and women in the department.  This is not the time to do that,” he said.  He knows he must support his members, and he believes it is important to be versatile because, in his role, he has many tasks to perform.

If officers have concerns or negative feedback resulting from the shooting incident, he has told them not to vent in public but, instead, to vent to him.  Scott provides them time with him that is within the department and behind closed doors. “We bond that way,” he said.  Additionally, he has brought in counselors to be on hand, if needed, and he acknowledged that some of his officers have taken the opportunity to talk to them.  

“This is a first for us.  I’m learning every day.  We will directly learn from it. You don’t want to lose focus on the victims of this incident or the family.  The citizens are going through this just as much as we are.  My focus is on them (the community) to provide the best service,” Scott said.

For other police departments nationwide, there are lessons to be learned from the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident.  Importantly, law enforcement agencies must partner with their communities.  “Get to learn your community.  Get to know the people in your area. Just be prepared for the unexpected.  You have to be flexible; have to adapt.  No plan is perfect.  We created contingencies.  Those changed often.  If we were not flexible and were without a back-up plan, we would have failed. We reached out to our community and solicited their assistance and been given feedback.  As we move forward, we are actually closer to them now,” Scott said. 

The media descended on Sanford immediately following the incident, and it has retained a dominant presence in that community.  “Not all the media is bad.  For the most part, the media that has been outside our state has given us the most support rather than our local media,"  Scott said.

What does Acting Chief Scott hope for with regard to public perception of the incident that has transpired in the town he polices?  “Sanford is a nice little town for local residents and people out of town to enjoy.  I just hope that the people don’t take for granted what they hear in the media,” he said.

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