Sanford police chief shares lessons of healing, reconciliation after Trayvon Martin’s death

Trayvon Martin’s death divided Sanford, led to mass exodus at police department

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, recently selected for the Florida Police Chiefs Association’s (FPCA) new Subcommittee on Accountability and Societal Change, brings a perspective to the subcommittee that few chiefs have.

SANFORD, Fla. – Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, recently selected for the Florida Police Chiefs Association’s (FPCA) new Subcommittee on Accountability and Societal Change, brings a perspective to the subcommittee that few chiefs have.

Smith was Sanford’s third police chief in three years.

He took over the department in 2013, right before the trial of George Zimmerman.

At the time, Sanford was divided. Trust between the community and the police was broken and the world was watching to see what would happen next.

In 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman during a struggle after Zimmerman followed Martin, believing Martin was suspicious.

Six weeks later, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and eventually acquitted during a jury trial. But during those six weeks, Sanford erupted in protest in the national spotlight.

“I’ll tell you that when I took over the department, there was a great deal of confusion,” Smith said. “And part of the confusion was because of internal conflicts and internal issues, but then part of the other issues I had to deal with were the circumstances that had taken place within the city at the time.”

More than half of the staff at the police department quit. But that created an opportunity for Smith to change the face of the force.

“One of the things we constantly heard is we don’t have people who look like us, sound like us, or understand us or are from our community,” Smith said. “So that opened up a huge avenue for us, to hire people from the community and put them through the process.”

Smith, a former deputy chief, was big on community policing.

“One of the things we wanted to do was make sure that we were able to redevelop that trust, the trust that have been lost,” Smith said. “Trust is very fragile and people tend to not want to give you that trust back. So we have made every effort. Just a couple of days ago we were at Action Church here in the community and I had a community conversation about race reconciliation, about how race affects how police officers interact, and how do people of color interact with the police department.”

Smith hired officers who were from the community and look like the community.

“Our goal wasn’t to hire the biggest, strongest people out there, our goal was to hire people who understood, who are empathetic, who could be sympathetic, who could hold a conversation,” Smith said. “We had to make sure that there weren’t people in the agency who had destructive behaviors and our goal was to assist them in retiring the best way we possibly could.”

He began hiring young cadets, not veteran police officers.

“It was a whole new concept within our agency where we would take an individual through the entire hiring process,” Smith said. “Their job is to go to school every day at the academy for the six months that they’re at the academy, and then come back and be prepared to work in the police department. We felt that this was a better way than hiring someone else who may have had additional baggage and been at another agency. So now we have the ability to hire people the way that we want to hire them, train them the way that we want to train them, get them familiar with our procedures, and have them prepared to go out and work in the community and understand our mission statement.”

And Smith began tracking both use of force and show of force by officers.

“Use of force is those actions that an officer takes to prevent an incident from taking place,” Smith said. “A show of force is similar except it’s when an officer unholsters his firearm or takes his taser out or takes out his pepper spray. Our goal was always to be able to collect that data so we have the ability to track the behavior of an officer to see if there’s anything that needs to be taking place -- retraining or disciplining any issues that are there.”

Smith said he makes that data available to the community.

Now, as a member of the FPCA’s Subcommittee on Accountability and Societal Change, he will recommend tracking use of force and show of force to all police departments across Florida.

The FPCA will then vote to adopt some or all of the recommendations from members.

“The Florida Police Chiefs Association’s Subcommittee on Accountability and Societal Change, as composed of law enforcement and community leaders, will review reform recommendations and develop a series of proposals that could be implemented at the local and state level to enhance trust, ensure transparency and accountability, and strengthen the relationships between the police and the communities they serve,” the FPCA said in a statement.

FPCA Chair Chief Anthony Holloway of the St. Petersburg Police Department said the FPCA is “serious” about its work.

“We intend to thoroughly review and issue new recommendations on policies, including those on the use of chokeholds, deadly force, comprehensive reporting, and training and transparency, among others,” Holloway said.

The Florida Police Chiefs Association (FPCA) is the nation’s pre-eminent law enforcement professional association, speaking for more than 900 of Florida’s top law enforcement executives, and providing guidance and leadership for the future of law enforcement and our communities, according to the FPCA. The FPCA serves municipal, airport, college and university and tribal police departments, as well as private businesses and security firms and federal, state and county law enforcement agencies across every region of the state.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.