As the nation awaits a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, police and city leaders in Sanford and South Florida say they have taken precautionary steps for the possibility of mass protests or even civil unrest if Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, is acquitted, particularly in African-American neighborhoods where passions run strongest over the case.
For months, Sanford officials have been meeting with community organizations and the federal justice department to help bridge divides within the city ahead of the verdict.
Zimmerman, 29, got into a scuffle with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin after spotting the teen while driving through his gated townhouse complex on a rainy night in February 2012. Zimmerman has claimed he fired in self-defense after Martin sucker-punched him and began slamming his head into the pavement. Prosecutors have disputed his account and portrayed him as the aggressor.
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder, but the jury will also be allowed to consider manslaughter. But because of the way Florida law imposes sentences for crimes committed with a gun, the lesser charge could also carry a life sentence.
To win a second-degree murder conviction, prosecutors must prove Zimmerman showed ill will, hatred or spite – a burden the defense has argued the state failed to meet. To get a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors must show only that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.
- Andrew Thomas, senior project manager for the city of Sanford, Florida.
- Valarie Houston, pastor of Allen Chapel Church in Sanford, Florida.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
After three weeks, the George Zimmerman is coming to a close. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The shooting sparked protests, initially, in Sanford, Florida, where it happened, with many African-American residents saying the police held off on arresting Zimmerman because Martin was black.
After the protests, the police chief was fired and replaced by a new African-American chief, and the city created a blue ribbon panel made up of local churches, businesses and advocacy groups to improve relations within the community. Joining us to talk about that are two members of the panel: Andrew Thomas, a senior project manager for the city of Sanford; and Valarie Houston, pastor of Allen Chapel Church in Sanford. Thanks, both of you, for joining us. And Andrew Thomas, I want to start with you. Tell us what the panel has accomplished so far.
ANDREW THOMAS: The blue ribbon panel was an opportunity for the community to come together and address the concerns that have been raised about the police department. There have been concerns within the community with regards to police-community relations. So it was an opportunity for the community to take an assessment of the department and strategize how the community concerns can be addressed.
HOBSON: What about you, Pastor? What do you think of what existed before and how this blue ribbon panel, which you served on, helped to change the situation in Sanford?
VALARIE HOUSTON: Well, I wouldn't say we've changed so much the situation. There has been some door-to-door community policing by the new African-American chief of police, Cecil Smith. And so if they take the recommendations and hear the heart of the people and make sure we continue to move forward and not just let it be something they do for a few months but continue to move forward, and I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure that is implemented, then I think we will have a better Sanford, and we'll have a better city, and we'll better have better relationships between the community and the police department.
HOBSON: Well Pastor Houston, I mean, with your - the people that you're talking to in the community, do they have a level of trust for the police at this point?
THOMAS: Well, we have not seen any major changes. So the people have seen, as I said, the chief of police and some of the officers. They've gotten out in the communities and gone door to door. But certainly it's beginning to be more of a maybe I would say somewhat of an improvement or ray of hope that with the police department working with the community that things will be better.
HOUSTON: But there's not been a whole lot of dialogue about changes that have been made.
HOBSON: Andrew Thomas, what do you think still needs to be done that maybe you started the process after the George Zimmerman trial began, but it's not quite done yet. What's left to be done?
THOMAS: The first step has been made in the planning process, bringing the panel together, the panel taking a look at the workings of the department, how do you improve upon the trust within the community, those sorts of issues. That's going to be ongoing.
There are some other initiatives that have occurred as a result of that, and engaging citizens in training with the police department in bias-related policing. A new chief, Chief Cecil Smith brought the new concept of the walk, knock and talk, that concept of getting out, just walking the community, knocking on doors and talking with people.
That's different. There are different trends that are starting. What will be the outcome, what will be the results of it? We're waiting to see. It looks like we're off to a good start. It looks like we're beginning to bring down some of the walls.
HOBSON: In any city in this country, there is the idea that if you put more police out on the streets, you take them out of their squad cars, you put them out walking amongst the people, that it does tend to create a little more trust. But it sounds like the problems in Sanford go deeper than that, that this is really a story also of race relations. What do you think about that, Pastor Houston?
HOUSTON: Yes, I can agree with that statement, and you can put something on paper, but it has to be mobilized, and that is my concern. Are we going to mobilize and then assess those officers that we have had problems with in the past in the community with some rudeness and persons not getting back with persons when they have relatives who have died, and there's no victims' advocate program.
So these are the kinds of things that we must move forward because there are some racial problems not only with the Sanford Police Department but with the city as a whole, and that's still the cry of the citizens. OK, you've had the panel, you've had the meetings, you've had this, but we can't really see the intentionality of the department or the city to make changes in the economic problems, in the policing problems, in the non-resourcing problems in the city.
Sanford has a problem with the African-Americans because of the history of Sanford. Whatever is recommended has to be implemented, and it has to be implemented with urgency. I think we're at a beginning point, as Mr. Thomas said, but I don't think we're moving fast enough for the citizens and not even for me.
HOBSON: Not moving fast enough, what do you make of that, Mr. Thomas?
THOMAS: Oh, I hear Pastor Houston, and we have the conversations, and yes, we do need to move faster, and there are some realities that many of the things that we talk about unfortunately have price tags associated with them. We may not have the financial resources to implement those types of initiatives that are necessary.
But through the conversations and collaborations that we're having with the community, some new initiatives are under way, we are working as fast as we can, but we're working as quickly as resources will allows us to, and trying to make some amends.
Yes, we do have some serious social welfare issues that need to be attended to in that community. We meet on a regular basis with the community, in fact the fourth Thursday of each month there are meetings that take place, and the purpose of those meetings is to talk about. And those are tough conversations very often.
How can we better serve this community? So yes we are moving, and we'd like to move faster, and hopefully as we go along that some momentum will pick up.
HOBSON: So Andrew Thomas, do you think, looking back on what's happened since Trayvon Martin was killed, what's been the effect on the city of Sanford?
THOMAS: Nobody would plan for a situation, the horrific, tragic situation such as this, but you still have to respond to it. And what it brought to light were, as I say, the history of inequities and injustice that people have been feeling. Those are real feeling that people have, and we can't sweep them under the rug and need an opportunity to talk about those. We need some reconciliation forms that allow people to have their say and feel that they have been heard and then that something's going to happen.
HOBSON: Andrew Thomas, senior project manager for the city of Sanford, Florida. We also heard from Valarie Houston, pastor of Allen Chapel Church in Sanford. Thanks to both of you. And we'd love to hear from listeners. Go to hereandnow.org right now and share your thoughts on this story.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
And it thought-provoking at the very least. There's more of the show in just a moment. Stick with us, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.