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Sanford City leaders reflect on Trayvon Martin case, 10 years on

Andrew Thomas (l), Cecil Smith & Norton Bonaparte. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE
Andrew Thomas (l), Cecil Smith & Norton Bonaparte. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE

This week WMFE is marking 10 years since Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer while walking home to his father’s house in Sanford. We’re examining Trayvon’s legacy and asking what’s changed in the decade since then. 

The death of 17-year-old Martin sparked protests and drew attention to the city of Sanford, in particular its police department, as calls mounted for the neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman to be arrested and charged. 

Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, community relations and neighborhood engagement director Andrew Thomas, and police chief Cecil Smith join Intersection for a conversation  about the relationship between the police and Sanford residents then and now. 

"The police department did what they could do, it was the state prosecutor that did not press the charges," says Bonaparte, reflecting on the protests that erupted after Martin was killed.

Bonaparte says Zimmerman was taken into custody by police and questioned for several hours before he was released.

He says the level of trust that residents have in the police is much better now than it was then, which he attributes to Police Chief Cecil Smith, who was hired in 2013. Smith replaced Bill Lee, who was fired several months after stepping aside from the job in the aftermath of Martin's shooting.

"He established his knock and talks, where he and the command staff on Thursday would pick an area and then just go knocking on the doors to let the residents know that they were there and to introduce themselves," says Bonaparte.

Since then he says Smith has added other initiatives "so that the community can feel a level of trust and respect within the Sanford Police Department."

"I think that there had been a great deal of mistrust that was developed within the department as well as externally," says Smith.

"The lack of communications with the people in the community, in some cases, the lack of communications within the organization itself."

When Smith arrived and began his 'knock and talk' strategy, he says the reaction from the community was "Mostly shock"

"One of the things that we found when we went door to door is that many of the people in the community didn't know who their police officers were. A lot of folks in community didn't know who the police chief was."

Community relations and neighborhood engagement director Andrew Thomas says Trayvon Martin's death "gave birth to community relations in the form that I'm working in."

"Whether we were part of it or not, the community was already coming together."

Thomas says Martin's death "rejuvenated" a lot of the history that Sanford's Black residents had experienced.

"And those issues [were] not only with law enforcement, there was issues with housing, there was issues with the infrastructure within the city, there was issues with education, and whether children were going to school, so it became multi fold. So when you have that you've got a need for Community Relations and community involvement."

WMFE reached out to some of Sanford's Black residents to find out how their view of the police has changed in the last 10 years.

"I believe that relationship has taken baby steps. And over time it has gotten better, but still not where we want to be. So it still needs to be worked on daily," said Pasha Baker, CEO of the Goldsboro West Side Community Historical Association.

"I would give them an A," said historian and activist Frances Oliver.

"There has been some improvement in the new leadership of the police department, but they still have a lot of work to do," said Turner Clayton Jr., former chair of the Seminole County Branch of the NAACP.

"There still is not 100% trust in law enforcement, like it should be among the Black community because the treatment that they have received in the past," he added.

Smith says he's working to try and build a police force that better represents the community it serves.

"One of the things that we constantly heard was, we don't have people who look like us, who talk like us, who understand us," he says, adding that his goal is to hire more officers from within Sanford.

"We're not just giving you the face show or anything, we're actually showing you that we're actively engaged in and doing these things to try to make the community and build trust."