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Elgin deputy chief up for top cop job in Trayvon Martin’s town

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: February 12, 2013 2:35PM

Elgin Deputy Police Chief Cecil Smith is one of five finalists for the police chief job in Sanford, Fla., a role that could find him in the national media spotlight because of a high-profile, hot-button murder case.

Sanford, a city of 54,000 in the greater Orlando area, came to notoriety early last year after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, shot 17-year-old Trayvon 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. Richard Myers has been serving as interim chief.

Other finalists

According to the Orlando Sentinel, 70 people applied for the post. Other finalists for the job include Kevin Canavan, who has been a deputy chief for the Nassau County Police Department in New York since last year; Rafael “Ralph” Hernandez, who has been an investigator for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office since March and who was chief of the North Miami Beach Police Department; George Markert, who has been director of public integrity for the Rochester, N.Y., police department since 2011 and a deputy chief there from 2007 to 2011; and Sandra Wilson, who has been deputy chief of the Clearwater Police Department since 2010 and who was a special-agent supervisor with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Orlando.

Smith said he applied for the job Nov. 29 after returning from a vacation to Orlando. He 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. Womack had been a deputy police chief in Arlington, Texas, and 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.

‘Great opportunity’

Smith said the job in Sanford 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 with race and (undocumented) immigration and protests related to the latter 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.”

Smith will be in Sanford next week as the process comes to its conclusion. On Tuesday, Smith said, he and the other finalists will tour Sanford, visit with city police and other departments and take part in a community forum where all will be asked questions from the audience. On Wednesday, the city manager and other Sanford officials will conduct interviews with each candidate separately. The city manager has said he expects to select a new chief sometime in February.

Smith has been deputy chief in Elgin since 2008 and with the department for 26 years. He graduated from Columbia College and has studied at the FBI National Academy and Northwestern University. 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.

Even if he doesn’t get the post in Sanford, Smith said the experience is preparing him for moving forward with his career, either elsewhere or in Elgin. Making it this far shows he has the qualities places are looking for in a police chief, he said.

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