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How did Trayvon Martin’s death affect police-community relations in Sanford?

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Georgetown, like Goldsboro, is a historically black neighborhood in Sanford. In the 10 years since Trayvon Martin's death, the police department has striven to improve police-community relations. Photo: Allegra Montesano, WMFE News

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SANFORD – Ten years ago, the Sanford Police Department drew protests from members of the city’s Black communities when it did not charge Trayvon Martin’s killer.

The distrust of law enforcement they felt had deep roots in this Central Florida city.

Nationally, Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer more than a year later sparked the modern Black Lives Matter movement and a call for police reform. In Sanford, the case also resurfaced a troubled past for some of the city’s historically Black communities and reminded leaders of the urgent need to ease tensions between Black people and the law enforcement there.

Francis Oliver is the founder of the Goldsboro Museum and Welcome Center in Sanford.

She said that tension was felt especially in Goldsboro. It had been one of the oldest incorporated African American cities in the United States. But over 100 years ago, in 1911, Sanford annexed Goldsboro.

“That’s when the city of Sanford disbanded the charter for Goldsboro, which at the time was its own city, its own government, its own municipality, its own post office, and everything,” Oliver said.

Neighborhoods like Goldsboro were formed after the Civil War to give provisions and shelter to freedmen and refugees. When the community was annexed into Sanford, a lot changed. Racial disparities were highlighted and their history was overwritten.

One year after Martin was killed, Oliver told WMFE she hoped the relationship between Sanford police and residents would improve.

Andrew Thomas, the community relations and neighborhood engagement director for Sanford, said he understands the history of the African American community there. Thomas said he recognized that Black residents needed to be heard in order for the relationship to be repaired.

“It was a lot of listening, in terms of what the community had to say… about what was being done, what had been done. As you probably well know, there’s a lot of history in this community,” Thomas said. “That particular incident with Trayvon just kind of rejuvenated a lot of the history that Sanford and the African American community had gone through.” 

In the midst of the Trayvon Martin case, Thomas said many Sanford community members felt affirmed in their distrust of law enforcement. They felt as though it was not handled the way it should have been.

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith said he immediately saw the need for improvement in the city’s relationship with police when he took over the department in April 2013. He felt that issues outside and inside of the department needed to be addressed. 

Smith focused on internal issues first, starting with encouraging his officers to go door-to-door in Goldsboro so that residents could get to know them.

“The first meeting I had with some of my guys, they told me I was crazy because I wanted to walk around in Goldsboro,” Smith said. “So, if you’re afraid to go out and do this job, you don’t need to be here doing this job – you can’t be afraid of the community that you’re saying that you’re supposed to go out and protect and serve.”

With the door-to-door introductions and “Talks with the Chief,” in which he invites residents to have a beverage and a chat with him, he said he thinks that the Sanford community and police department are on the same page now.

“We have that understanding that we’re all human, that we all want to live in harmony, and that you give us the opportunity to ensure the peace and tranquility that you have in society today and to work with us to make sure that continues,” Smith said.

Oliver has been one of the most vocal critics of the Sanford Police Department in the past. Now she says that, even though they have more work to do, they’ve come a long way.

“I wouldn’t say there’s not some things that could be done better. But it’s better than what it was. It’s better than what it was before Trayvon. It’s better than what it was before Cecil came,” Oliver said.

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