Within days of becoming the police chief in Sanford, Fl., outside Orlando, Cecil E. Smith began to see clearly the scope of the challenges he faced, reports the New York Times. There were grumblings in the ranks: at least one supervisor said he did not want to work for a black man. Out on the streets, some black residents voiced misgivings of a different sort. Smith may be black, but he is a Northerner. How could he ever understand them? “This has been a slave town forever,” one resident told Smith. “There are people who still feel white people are the devil. You're not from here. You don't understand.”
The fatal shooting in Sanford last year of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, compelled many to assert that racial profiling and citizen vigilantism had taken place. Sandford's Police Department became the focus of much of the rage. That the agency neither arrested nor charged Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, was taken by some as proof of not only ineptness but also bias. After arriving in Sanford, Smith used strategies he honed in Elgin, Il. At community events, he doles out hugs. Every Thursday afternoon, he and a dozen or so officers go door to door in a different neighborhood — introducing themselves with smiles, pumping hands, scribbling down names and numbers, and asking if there are problems that the police can address. This outreach has left residents both astounded and delighted.