(MCT) — CHICAGO—Elgin Deputy Police Chief Cecil Smith has been offered the job of police chief in Sanford, Fla., the community that drew national controversy over authorities’ handling of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, officials announced Tuesday.
If Smith accepts the job, he would succeed former Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, who was fired last year after a public outcry when police failed to quickly arrest shooting suspect George Zimmerman. Critics accused Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, with targeting Martin, 17, because he was black. Zimmerman has claimed he acted in self defense.
Smith, 51, said he is mulling over the job offer.
“It is going to take a little family conversation to find out if this is a good fit for us or not,” he said. “Should everything work out, I look forward to the challenge, in working with the city of Sanford, in resolving any issues that are underlying in the community.”
Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte has said that Sanford must “seek ways to heal itself” from the controversy. The teen’s Feb. 26 death followed years of complaints, primarily from Sanford’s black community, about racism by police against black residents.
Smith was one of five candidates — and one of two black candidates — who traveled to Sanford earlier this month to meet with city leaders and residents about the job. The candidates were chosen from 76 applicants.
“Elgin, unlike Sanford, had issues 20, 30 years ago,” Smith said. “You have to have the buy-in from the community to make change. I believe in sitting down and working with those issues.”
Sanford’s population is about half the size of Elgin’s 110,000 residents. Sanford employs 22 police officers, compared with Elgin’s 180 officers, Smith said.
Bonaparte visited Elgin last week and met with that city’s mayor, city manager and police chief.
“I hate to see him go,” Elgin Mayor David Kaptain said Tuesday. “I’ve known Cecil for 20 years. He’s not only top-notch police officer but also a top-notch human being. But he’ll do an excellent job. But for us, it’s a loss.”
St. Charles Police Chief Jim Lamkin, who served as a deputy police chief in Elgin until 2003, said he spoke to Smith about the Florida job last week.
His advice? “You have to go in with an open mind and identify what some of the issues are — what’s working well and what needs improvement — and put together a plan of where you want to be,” Lamkin said.
Smith started his law-enforcement career at the Elgin Police Department, where he was hired as a patrol officer in January 1988. He quickly rose up the ranks, serving on a special unit that investigated drugs and gangs, community relations and crime prevention officer, a lieutenant and as commander of a special investigations division. He was promoted to deputy chief in August 2008.
Sanford offered Smith an annual salary of $110,469.
The Elgin Police Department also has experienced racial discord.
Elgin police officer Phillipp D. Brown filed a federal lawsuit against the city and two employees in December, alleging that a racist culture exists within the department. Elgin’s lawyer has said the claims were unfounded.
(Lisa Black is a Chicago Tribune reporter; Martin E. Comas is an Orlando Sentinel reporter.)