Case Study: City of Sanford, Florida — 2012 Shooting of Trayvon Martin

Excerpt from "Leadership and Professional Local Government Managers: Before, During, and After a Crisis," April 2019 [PM Special Supplement, June 2020]

Jul 16, 2020 | ARTICLE
Foreword by Norton N. Bonaparte Jr., ICMA-CM, City Manager, Sanford, Florida

The death of George Floyd has again resurfaced racial tensions in America. Sanford, like other communities has had a number of demonstrations, all of which have been peaceful. Our mayor, police chief, and I have participated in a march and our elected officials and members of our police department have attended various programs. People are hurting and this is a time for us to listen and let it be known that we care and will be working to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman over two years before Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Unlike most of the recent high-profile shootings, this one was not a police officer involved shooting. However, the incident became all about the police, not because of what they did, but because of what they did not do: immediately arrest and hold the shooter, George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was part of a neighborhood watch group for his gated residential complex, the Retreat at Twin Lakes. City Manager Norton Bonaparte noted that in previous communities where he has lived, gated communities were places of affluence. In Sanford, however, he said that “they are more modest; they are simply communities with a gate.”

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was visiting the Retreat at Twin Lakes, on a trip with his father to see his father’s girlfriend who lived there. Martin went to the 7-Eleven and bought Skittles and AriZona Iced Tea. As Martin returned to the townhouse in the complex, Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person and followed Martin despite being told not to by the 911 operator. Zimmerman claimed that the unarmed Martin threatened him, and, in self-defense, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. There were no witnesses or definitive video. Sanford Police arrested Zimmerman, questioned him, but lacking evidence to disprove his self-defense claim, let him return home while the investigation continued. In April 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. He was acquitted in July 2013.

City Manager Bonaparte was informed of the shooting when it occurred and trusted the police to conduct the investigation. Intense media inquiries started about two weeks later and quickly gained international prominence: “another young black man shot by a white person, and police do nothing.”

As a result of the media attention, four major protest events occurred in Sanford:

  • Rev. Al Sharpton led a march of 30,000 people.
  • An NAACP rally had several thousand people.
  • 3,000 people came to a City Commission meeting, which normally attracts 20 to 30 people.
  • College students, who called themselves Dream Defenders, walked from Daytona Beach to Sanford and staged a sit-in in front of the Sanford police station.

There were no major incidents at any of these events. Bonaparte attributes the lack of violence or property damage to the city’s adopting a philosophy of welcoming people to the community, listening to their concerns, accommodating their needs, and facilitating their First Amendment rights.

The following are examples:

  • For the Rev. Sharpton’s march, normal protocol would have required about a 60-day process for an event of this size. The permit was approved in days, facilitated by the city. Bonaparte activated the emergency operations center to monitor events, attended the rally, and walked around and talked with people participating in the event.
  • When the city learned that the Martin family was bringing 3,000 people to the commission meeting, the city moved the meeting from its normal facility, which seats 125, to its largest venue at the civic center, which seats 600. For those who would be left outside, the city rented a giant screen so people could see and hear the meeting and provided portable toilets and water. Arrangements cost an unbudgeted $35,000, which Bonaparte explains this way: “It wasn’t a cost; it was an investment in our community’s security.”
  • When students staged the sit-in at the police station, it was clear that they wanted to be arrested, a narrative that Bonaparte thought would be disastrous: Sanford police arrest peaceful black students but won’t arrest the killer of Trayvon Martin. Bonaparte moved civilian police staff to city hall and let the community know that if they had business to do with the police, staff would be available in city hall. He then engaged the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service to assist in negotiating a peaceful resolution of the sit-in — a service Bonaparte strongly recommends to other managers.

To address the larger issues, Bonaparte convened a blueribbon committee, which made recommendations for improving police relations in June 2013. A two-year progress report is available on the Sanford website. Over the course of the event, the City Commission took a no-confidence vote on the police chief, who Bonaparte later

dismissed. Although the police were seen as the underlying focal point of the presenting issue, distrust of the city ran deep and was multifaceted. Thus, the response to the bigger picture required engagement of all city departments.

Today, Bonaparte says that progress has been made. “You will see in the city’s parks people of various races and backgrounds together; people get along.” There is

redevelopment in distressed areas showing tangible results to the community. At the same time, Bonaparte expresses awareness that “unresolved issues remain, and we continue the work between the African-American community and Sanford Police Department; we continue the work to earn the community’s trust.”

Excerpted from “Leadership and Professional Local Government Managers: Before, During, and After a Crisis,” Ron Carlee, D.P.A., published by ICMA, April 2019.

This article appeared in the PM Special Supplement, Moments of Change: Leading with Courage and Commitment for Racial and Social Justice. If you would like to contribute to future publications on racial and social justice, contact us at pm@icma.org.

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