April 30--Sanford is searching for an outsider to temporarily run its troubled Police Department, and whoever takes the job will face a deeply divided community and little time to build trust, criminal-justice experts and community leaders say.
On one side are those demanding the firing of police Chief Bill Lee, who stepped aside temporarily after a storm of criticism over the way his department handled the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. On the other side are residents -- many of them police officers -- who support Lee and want to see him return.
And in the background are long-standing complaints of police racism and recent scandals involving officers.
"Any interim [police] chief coming into Sanford is certainly going to face challenges," said Kenneth Adams, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. "He will have to deal with a community that is very divided, so it will become a challenge to bring them together in such a short time."
City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. has said Lee's future won't be decided until investigations of the department's handling of the Feb. 26 shooting are done, and that could take several months. Soon after Lee stepped aside, Bonaparte launched a search for an interim police chief, and he said recently that he hoped to make an announcement this week.
But late last week, a city spokeswoman said that, although the search is moving ahead, Sanford does not have any candidates or a salary range for the job.
"The city isn't that far along yet," spokeswoman Lisa Mosca said. "It's something that is still being worked on." In the meantime, Capt. Darren Scott a department veteran, has been acting as chief.
Bonaparte has said he wants someone who has served as chief of another agency for several years and is able to evaluate the day-to-day functions of Sanford's Police Department, which has 137 employees.
Criminal-justice experts say it's common for a retired law-enforcement officer with leadership experience to take such a role.
To help with its search, Sanford has contracted with the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a Washington organization that helps find candidates for top police jobs. Sanford commissioners agreed to pay up to $20,000 for the service. PERF did not return calls seeking comment about the search.
Many Sanford residents say Lee -- who is still drawing his $102,000 annual salary while on administrative leave -- should be fired because his officers did not immediately arrest shooter George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense and was later charged by a special prosecutor with second-degree murder. He has been released on bail.
The Police Department has a long history of racial incidents. Sanford's previous police chief, Brian Tooley, was criticized when his department did not arrest a Sanford police officer's son captured on video punching a homeless black man.
Then the shooting death of the unarmed Trayvon, also black, became "the boiling point," said Turner Clayton, president of the Seminole County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Right now there is no trust. There is no faith in the department," said Clayton, a former Seminole County deputy sheriff. "It's probably a good idea that the interim chief come from the outside and not be part of the good-old-boy system."
Elijah June, a longtime Sanford resident and pastor of Faith Bible Ministry of Trinity Triumphant Tabernacle, said he wants Lee fired but agreed that an interim chief from outside would help build trust.
"We need someone who is not tied to the city -- someone who is fair, that will listen and that will bond with us," he said. "All we want is fairness. Just fairness."
Any interim chief wouldn't have much time to make changes or forge those bonds, however.
"It takes a long period of time to build trust within a community," said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "Being a police leader is a very difficult job. Because of the very nature of police work, you cannot satisfy the majority of the people you serve. There will always be those who are suspicious."
Bonaparte has repeatedly said he will not fire Lee, who has had the job for a year, unless investigations by the city and the U.S. Department of Justice find civil-rights violations in how the department investigated the shooting of Trayvon.
Instead of firing Lee, Bonaparte last week persuaded the chief to submit his resignation, with the condition that city commissioners approve a severance package. Bonaparte said Lee's resignation would be a way of helping Sanford "move forward" after weeks of tension. But by a 3-2 vote, city commissioners rejected the chief's resignation.
City Commissioner Patty Mahany, a vocal advocate for keeping Lee, said that hiring an interim chief would only create more confusion. Four people have acted as Sanford police chief within the past two years.
"I would leave Capt. Darren Scott in place," Mahany said. "He's done such an admirable job -- especially with all the attention Sanford has gotten. I mean, how many cooks can we get into this stew?"
Adams, of UCF, had yet another suggestion: Instead of hiring an interim chief, Sanford should hire a nationally recognized consultant to study the Police Department and its relationship with the community.
"The consultant could be a retired police chief ... who has expertise in community relations and organizational change," Adams said. "At the end of the study period, city leaders will have a better idea of what they are looking for in a chief."
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