Sanford prepared for possible civil unrest, law enforcement leaders say

Published On: Jul 11 2013 09:32:06 AM EDT
Updated On: Jul 12 2013 03:05:11 PM EDT
SANFORD, Fla. -

Police and city leaders in Sanford say they've taken precautionary steps for possible protests or civil unrest if George Zimmerman is acquitted in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

For months, officials have been working with pastors, youth coaches and community activists to stress a non-violent approach once a verdict is announced. But police also have quietly been making plans to deal with potential violence.

Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger and Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith held a news conference after the jury began deliberations on Friday at the courthouse.

Eslinger said that they have not seen any tension in Seminole County and that residents need to accept the jury's verdict, when it comes.

"We the public accept and respect their decision," he said. "We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law."

Smith discussed the protest in which thousands came to Sanford calling an investigation, an arrest and a trial. He said all of those things happened.

Smith said SPD has been working with the community to improve the relationship with the department.

"The city of Sanford has been a peaceful location since that time 17 months ago and it remains a peaceful location," Smith said, adding that the city is working to make it a better community.

"It's a trying time for all of us, we're not sure what the verdict is going to bring out but at the same time it's a great opportunity for the evolution of the community," Smith continued.

In Sanford on Thursday, the same day the state presented its closing argument, Pastor R.L. Gundy with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a news conference outside of the courthouse with a strong message.

"If you decide that you want to protest, do it peacefully and don't come to Sanford if you're going to do it," he said. "It is very important that we understand that you can't achieve anything with violence."

The Sanford Police Department said it is preparing for verdict day and that there is no evidence there will be any public reaction. The free-speech zones outside of the courthouse have largely been empty during the trial.

Chief Cecil Smith says his officers have been talking to Sanford residents throughout the trial and he has a good gauge on what they're thinking. He has no reason to assume that reactions will be anything but peaceful.

"When you look around Sanford today, look around Sanford for the past 20-plus days since this trial began, it's been very peaceful in town," Smith said.

But Smith says the department is prepared. He wouldn't go into details about the plans, but says there will be extra officers on the streets when the verdict is released.

Gundy said the purpose of his news conference is simply to be proactive.

"We're peaceful people and we understand fundamentally if you want to protest we want (you) to do it peacefully so (we try) get ahead of that stuff," Gundy said.

Still, some Sanford residents worry how their neighbors will react to the verdict.

"I think that there might be some riots. I will definitely be off the streets," said Gina Truelove.

In South Florida, where the 17-year-old Martin was from, police may set up "First Amendment Zones" in the Miami area for peaceful rallies. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel also is airing TV ads stressing non-violence.

Zimmerman is on trial for second-degree murder in the shooting of Martin in Sanford. Martin's supporters say the shooting was racially motivated, while Zimmerman claims self-defense.

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