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updated: 7/17/2013 8:24 AM

Sanford, Florida's chief draws on lessons from Elgin

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  • Cecil Smith

    Cecil Smith


When Cecil Smith took over as police chief in Sanford, Fla., he relied on what he'd learned during his 25 years in Elgin to deal with the potentially explosive aftermath of the death of teenager Trayvon Martin.

In about three months in Florida, Smith has been all but consumed by anticipated fallout from the trial of Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman.

Smith, who ended his career in Elgin as deputy chief, took over April 1 as chief in Sanford. Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin in February 2012, was found not guilty of murder and manslaughter charges by a jury Saturday.

Despite fears of rioting, Sanford so far has remained quiet with only a handful of peaceful protests, the largest one numbering about 150 people outside the courthouse when the verdict was announced, Smith said.

The police department essentially doubled the number of patrol officers by implementing a tighter rotation system when the Zimmerman jury began deliberating and will keep that in place at least through Thursday, after the NAACP annual convention wraps up in Orlando, Fla., Smith said.

It hasn't been easy to deal with an issue in the national spotlight while trying to get his bearings in the new job, he said.

"Probably the tough part has been that you want to come in and meet all your people and really get to know them," he said. "I've put a lot of stuff on hold. I focused the past three months on focusing that the community was safe and the community was talking to each other. Thus far, it has essentially paid off."

Smith said he took Elgin's community policing model to Sanford, where residents of the town of about 55,000 rarely saw or heard from previous police chiefs.

"It was strange coming from Elgin -- the things we were doing there, with the chief being out in the community and being active in the community, it was different here," he said. "The (Sanford) chief was a guy they'd occasionally see when something major happens."

He and his officers have done a lot of door-to-door community policing to introduce themselves to residents, talk to them about their concerns and encourage them to reach out to police -- even giving out work cellphone numbers, a common practice in Elgin, he said.

"That hadn't been done here before. Most people didn't know how to get a hold of the chief," he said. "They are surprised when I show up for stuff. I went to the protests on Sunday and just talked to people. The reaction has been very good."

To prepare for the Zimmerman verdict, Smith met with local groups, including local branches of the NAACP and Urban league, and the Sanford Pastors Connection, a new group comprising about 70 pastors from Seminole County.

He worked closely with the Seminole County sheriff and consulted with the Orlando police chief, whose officers broke up a riot during a new Nike shoe launch last year, he said.

He also reached out to Lakeland, Fla., Police Chief Lisa Womack, who was chief in Elgin until 2010, and the North Port, Fla., police chief, who was Smith's roommate at the FBI National Academy, he said.

"It has been a great relationship with all the folks down here," Smith said. "They all offered to send as many people as we'd need (in case of riots), but it hasn't been necessary. In Sanford, thus far, we've been blessed with quietness."

The Trayvon Martin case may not be over, because Zimmerman might face a lawsuit or, less likely, federal civil rights charges, many have speculated.

Meanwhile, Smith said he wants to get to work on things like revamping the Sanford police's community relations section, addressing pending departmental promotions and implementing something similar to Elgin's citizens police academy.

He also wants to have an active role in addressing other areas.

"How do we get development into some of the impoverished areas? How do we improve the infrastructures that are in place? It's also about looking at jobs and employment," he said. "There's a lot of things that need to be done, a lot of conversation that needs to be had. But we're definitely steps ahead of where the city was 17 or 18 months ago."

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