Trayvon Martin: How Sanford sparked the global Black Lives Matter movement

Chief explains what’s changed in city’s policing since Trayvon Martin’s death

SANFORD, Fla. — Black Lives Matter is a global movement we’ve watched grow right here in our own communities, and it started with Sanford.

The founders are not from Sanford, but the hashtag was born in summer 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. It was that same year that the Sanford Police Department brought in a new chief on a mission to change the culture of division between police and the community.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray was there for all of it seven years ago, and she spoke one-on-one with Chief Cecil Smith about what he said still needs to be done to keep bad officers out of agencies.

READ: What does ‘defunding the police’ mean?

Before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, there was Trayvon Martin. The handling of the teen’s 2012 Sanford death led to the city’s police chief being fired and demands for an overhaul of what many considered systemic racial tensions between the agency and the community.

“Is Sanford’s problem a Trayvon Martin problem? No,” Smith said in 2013. “Sanford has had issues for many, many years.”

Smith spoke to WFTV in February 2013 from his department in Elgin, Illinois, after it was announced he would be the fifth Sanford police chief in just two years.

Seven years later, Smith said the department and the city are in a better place.

READ: Google Maps adds ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’ after giant mural completed in Washington

“I was blessed to have the opportunity to walk into an agency that was in need of change during a crisis,” Smith said. “And I had a mayor, city manager and commission who said, ‘You need to fix it.’”

Smith said the department has seen about a 70% turnover of officers in the seven years since he started as the agency put a primary focus on community policing and relations.

“We don't need the biggest, fastest, strongest police officer, but we do need the officer willing to listen, who has compassion, willing to work in our community to make the community better,” Smith said.

That started with the chief himself going door to door for “knock and talks” during his first year, hitting more than half the homes in the city. The agency was also one of the first in Central Florida to purchase body cameras to demand officer accountability.

READ: George Floyd protests live updates: Legislators push for police overhaul

Statistics show it has worked. Though the agency saw an increase in calls for service, growing from more than 95,000 in 2009 to nearly 108,000 in 2019, crime is down. In 2019, 3,699 crimes were reported in Sanford, compared to 2,635 in 2019.

“We wanted to make sure people were comfortable. When I first got here, people didn't want to come complain about police officers because they didn't think anything would be done,” Smith said.

Though Smith backs the badge, he is one of only a few black police chiefs in Central Florida and hears the cries for change.

“Being both a black man and a law enforcement person, you sort of stand in two worlds,” Smith said.

READ: Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett resigns, files to run for Seminole County property appraiser

Smith admits the Officer’s Bill of Rights makes it harder in Florida to weed out those who might otherwise be fired for misconduct, underscoring the need to do more leg work before making a hire.

“What we need to do is look at is, who are we hiring? Are we checking on people? Are we doing those in-depth conversations to see what their biases are?” Smith said.

Before George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others... there was Trayvon Martin. I was in the crowd...

Posted by Karla Ray on Monday, June 8, 2020

Karla Ray,

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.