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New police chief talks to the people

New police chief Cecil Smith

New police chief Cecil Smith

SANFORD — In a once-segregated Southern town where a shooting death last year ignited a dispute that polarised America, the new police chief has embraced a simple tactic. He calls it the “walk and talk”.

Unprecedented in Sanford, where George Zimmerman is on trial for killing teenager Trayvon Martin, the campaign has led Cecil Smith out of the police station and into a historic black neighbourhood nearby. There, the Northerner from a Chicago suburb has knocked on doors and talked with people about their concerns.

Barely 100 days into the job, Smith has also moved beyond the neighbourhood known as Goldsboro and into white, Hispanic and mixed neighbourhoods. He has ordered his 130 officers to get out of their cruisers and engage the public. They hand out business cards with their cell phone numbers.

By reaching out, Smith, who is black, says he has set himself apart from his predecessors, one of whom stepped down after his handling of the shooting enflamed racial tensions in town and rekindled a national debate about race relations in the United States.

His efforts could be put to the test in the coming days, with a six-woman jury soon to begin deliberations on a verdict for Zimmerman, who is accused of second-degree murder for shooting Martin. Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, was armed, and Martin, 17-years old and black, was unarmed.

The defence rested its case yesterday, and the judge said the jury would begin deliberations on Friday afternoon.

Even though Smith’s police force has put measures in place ahead of the verdict, the chief said he expects calm on the streets of Sanford, in central Florida, where protests broke out after the shooting last year and soon spread across the country.

“Right now I’m expecting nothing,” Smith told Reuters from the same police station where investigators interrogated Zimmerman the night of February 26, 2012 after he had shot and killed Martin in what he said was self-defense.

“People are not feeling or hearing anything out there in the community, there’s no chatter out there about anything taking place and in some cases there’s more of a spin-up on the media side with regards to there being some issues of concern,” Smith said.

Still, with many legal commentators saying the prosecution’s case appeared weak, officials are preparing for any uproar that could follow if Zimmerman is acquitted.

Sanford police, in conjunction with some county sheriff’s departments, have put together a plan to “ensure the safety of the cities” after a verdict, Smith said. He declined to reveal any details. (Reuters)

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