SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - In a once-segregated Southern town where a shooting death last year ignited a dispute that polarized America, the new police chief has embraced a simple tactic. He calls it the “walk and talk.”
Unprecedented in Sanford, where George Zimmerman is on trial for killing teenager Trayvon Martin, the campaign has led Cecil Smith out of the police station and into a historic black neighborhood nearby. There, the Northerner from a Chicago suburb has knocked on doors and talked with people about their concerns.
Barely 100 days into the job, Smith has also moved beyond the neighborhood known as Goldsboro and into white, Hispanic and mixed neighborhoods. He has ordered his 130 officers to get out of their cruisers and engage the public. They hand out business cards with their cell phone numbers.
By reaching out, Smith, who is black, says he has set himself apart from his predecessors, one of whom stepped down after his handling of the shooting enflamed racial tensions in town and rekindled a national debate about race relations in the United States.
His efforts could be put to the test in the coming days, with a six-woman jury soon to begin deliberations on a verdict for Zimmerman, who is accused of second-degree murder for shooting Martin. Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, was armed, and Martin, 17-years old and black, was unarmed.
The defense rested its case on Wednesday, and the judge said the jury would begin deliberations on Friday afternoon.
Even though Smith’s police force has put measures in place ahead of the verdict, the chief said he expects calm on the streets of Sanford, in central Florida, where protests broke out after the shooting last year and soon spread across the country.
“Right now I‘m expecting nothing,” Smith told Reuters from the same police station where investigators interrogated Zimmerman the night of February 26, 2012 after he had shot and killed Martin in what he said was self-defense.
“People are not feeling or hearing anything out there in the community, there’s no chatter out there about anything taking place and in some cases there’s more of a spin-up on the media side with regards to there being some issues of concern,” Smith said.
Still, with many legal commentators saying the prosecution’s case appeared weak, officials are preparing for any uproar that could follow if Zimmerman is acquitted.
Sanford police, in conjunction with some county sheriff’s departments, have put together a plan to “ensure the safety of the cities” after a verdict, Smith said. He declined to reveal any details.
While Smith said the town has moved past the outrage that surrounded the case a year ago, reminders of the emotional outpouring that followed the shooting remain. At a shrine to Martin in Sanford that is fashioned out of railway cross-ties and concrete blocks, a banner reads, “Justice in Sanford, Florida - Now is the Time!”
“You can feel the tension,” said Francis Oliver, a black activist. “The Zimmerman case has split this town down the middle.”
Among some of the black community leaders, there is also concern that the jury in the Zimmerman murder trial consisted of five white women, and one woman who is Hispanic of mixed race. Sanford, a town of 54,000, is 30 percent black.
“We wonder, could they really see things out of our eyes, our perspective?” said Cindy Philemon, who helps run a welcome center in the Goldsboro neighborhood. “Our young people are in danger of being profiled and killed out of suspicion.”
Smith said he has yet to encounter racism in Sanford, failing to detect a trace of it even when he is out in civilian clothes with his wife, who is white.
When one of his predecessors, Billy Ray Lee Jr., who is white, decided against arresting Zimmerman, angry demonstrations took place right outside the police station. African-American community leaders complained racial profiling led Zimmerman to target Martin as suspicious, and that a police force with a record of inflaming the black community too easily accepted Zimmerman’s story.
When those demonstrations grew more intense and spread across the country, Lee stepped down. Protesters demanded an arrest, which came 45 days after the shooting when a special prosecutor charged Zimmerman.
Turner Clayton, the local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), agreed with Smith in expecting calm after any verdict, even if it is for acquittal, largely because the main demands of the demonstrators have been met.
Like many towns in the South, Sanford has a long history of racial strife, including one involving Jackie Robinson, who overcame segregation to become the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in 1947. While still in the minor leagues, Robinson was due to play a game in Sanford, but the local police chief escorted him off the field, according to Chris Lamb, author of “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training.”
Into this town stepped Smith, 52, after having spent 25 years with the police department in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, where he was deputy police chief. On April 1, Smith became the seventh Sanford police chief in five years, including two interim chiefs and two acting chiefs.
Rather than being embraced by Sanford blacks, Smith said he was met with distrust because he came from the north.
“You don’t understand us Southerners because you’re a northerner,” Smith said he was told. “There’s a whole, gray, weird kind of era that’s taken place in this community where there’s all kinds of separations, not just between black and white but within the black community.”
Smith’s rejoinder has often been a variation of “Dude, I‘m from Chicago,” meaning he has experience in a rough-and-tumble world.
Clayton, president of the Seminole County NAACP, said he appreciated what Smith was doing but cautioned it would take time for results.
“I know he’s knocking on doors, trying to get the trust of the community again,” Clayton said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
(This story corrects start of jury deliberation to Friday from Thursday, paragraph 6)
Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Barbara Liston; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Frank McGurty and Leslie Gevirtz