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Elgin’s Cecil Smith offered police chief job in Trayvon Martin’s city

Michael Smart | Staff Photographer ElgDeputy Chief Police Cecil Smith. 10/2/09

Michael Smart | Staff Photographer Elgin Deputy Chief of Police Cecil Smith. 10/2/09

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Updated: January 30, 2013 3:48PM

ELGIN — Deputy Elgin Police Chief Cecil Smith has been offered the job of police chief in Sanford, Fla., the town where the Trayvon Martin shooting took place last year.

Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall confirmed that Smith has been offered the job and said Smith is considering the offer but has not yet decided whether to accept it. Smith could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Smith would succeed Chief Bill Lee, who was fired by Sanford officials after the “stand-your-ground” shooting of the 17-year-old Martin on Feb. 26, 2012 drew national publicity and sparked racial controversy.

Smith, 51, has spent his whole law-enforcement career in Elgin after starting with the Elgin Police Department in 1988. He was promoted to deputy chief in 2008.

Smith, who is black, was one of five finalists — two of them black — who traveled to Sanford earlier this month to meet with city leaders and residents about the job. The candidates had been chosen from 76 applicants.

Sanford has a population of 54,000, almost exactly half as big as Elgin. It is located near Orlando.

A public process

Smith and the four other finalists visited Sanford two weeks ago. They were interviewed by city officials and underwent test leadership exercises led by law-enforcement experts. As Sanford’s city leadership bent over backwards to show they were being open in the racially tense post-Trayvon Martin era, the finalists even appeared in a community forum to answer questions and take comments from the public.

Lisa Mosca, public information officer for the City of Sanford, said City Manager Norton Bonaparte sent an offer of employment to Smith after gathering advice from Mayor Jeff Triplett, Sanford’s city commissioners, residents who attended the public forum, feedback from a review panel and the law-enforcement officials who conducted the test exercises.

Last week, she revealed, Bonaparte also visited Elgin and met with various Elgin community leaders, including Mayor David Kaptain, Stegall and Police Chief Jeff Swoboda.

Mosca said the job would pay $110,469 a year. She said the offer is contingent upon successful completion of a city-initiated background check, pre-employment physical and drug screen, and, of course, on Smith saying yes.

Air Force vet

A Chicago native, Smith came to Elgin from the Air Force and retired from the Illinois Air National Guard in 2008 after serving 25 years.

He graduated from Columbia College in Chicago and has studied at the FBI National Academy and Northwestern University.

Smith told The Courier-News recently that he applied for the job Nov. 29 after returning from a vacation in Orlando. He said he had heard about the job in part from former Elgin Police Chief Lisa Womack, who thought he would be a good fit for the job and urged him to apply.

Womack became the first woman to be Elgin’s police chief in 2005 and resigned in 2010. Before coming to Elgin, Womack had been a deputy police chief in Arlington, Texas, and she returned to that Dallas suburb to be an assistant chief heading the operations bureau during the 2010 World Series and the 2011 Super Bowl.

In March 2011 Womack became chief of police in Lakeland, Fla., a town of 84,000, where she heard about the Sanford vacancy.

City of notoriety

Sanford came to notoriety early last year after George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch captain, shot 17-year-old Martin on the night of Feb. 26.

According to reports, there had been a spate of burglaries in the gated community where Zimmerman spotted Martin. Zimmerman called police but also took it upon himself to leave his car, which led to an altercation with the unarmed Martin, and Zimmerman shot the teen.

Zimmerman, now 29, who had visible signs of being hit, claimed he acted in self-defense and in accordance with Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law,” which allows a person to respond to a threat with deadly force under the presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm. Zimmerman was released by Sanford police after questioning.

By early March, the incident was in the national media spotlight, and later that month a special prosecutor was appointed to the case. In mid-April, authorities charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. His trial is set to begin in June.

In the aftermath of the case, Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte fired Police Chief Bill Lee in late June, citing escalating divisiveness in the city.

Before being interviewed in Sanford, Smith told The Courier-News that the job would be an opportunity to share what he’s learned about policing in Elgin, particularly about bringing communities together. He mentioned that Elgin has had issues of its own regarding race and immigration, and protests related to the latter were somewhat comparable to issues in Sanford.

“We’ve worked to resolve issues and continue to do so. We’ve developed plans that include engaging the community, such as the citizens’ police academy, which give residents a better understanding of police work and allow police to better understand resident concerns,” Smith said.

The job in Sanford “would be a challenge and a great opportunity,” Smith said. “I’d work to sit down with residents there to find out their concerns and work to create and environment in which we could move forward from the things that have happened.”

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