The Sanford Police Department and surrounding agencies are preparing for State Attorney Angela Corey to release her decision about whether or not George Zimmerman – the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – will be charged. If Corey finds probable cause, she could direct-file the charges anytime or present evidence to a Seminole County grand jury, according to this local publication.
The grand jury could indict, ask to hear more evidence, or decline to indict. But, since Zimmerman invoked the Stand Your Ground Law, even if charges are filed, a judge could review the case and grant immunity, thus dismissing the charges.
It’s hard to tell how this will go, but police aren’t taking any chances especially as the number of people attending rallies has grown considerably in size.
The city is on alert and the emergency management team has been meeting with federal agencies to plan for worst-case scenarios. Extra police officers and fire department officials are on standby. Neighboring agenices have also been asked to assit, if needed.
In my roles as a Commander of a Disorder Control Task Force as well as a Precinct Commander, I have prepared for and worked numerous events like this. These events included, like Sandford, verdicts in controversial cases. They also include sporting events such as the Superbowl and World Series, as well as large-scale political events such as the Republican National Convention and World Economic Forum.
I think it’s important to discuss agencies OTHER THAN Sanford, who will likely also experience activity related to the prosecutor’s decision. Sanford is the epicenter of the event and will have specific issues that no outsider could properly assess.
The first and most important issue during an event like this is communication. Strong communication is not something that can be developed in the midst of an event – it must be developed long before it is needed. When a controversial decision is imminent, all parties should know how to reach each other. A police commander has many groups he or she will need to communicate with during this period. The commander must communicate with the officers in his or her department. One of the things I told my officers was to remember that not everyone shares the officer’s viewpoint – not even other officers. They need to refrain from celebrating or expressing their displeasure over the decision even with each other.
Next, the commander should remind them that any events will be policed impartially. We never base our actions on the content of a group’s opinions – protestors in favor of and opposed to the prosecutor’s decision in the Zimmerman case are both entitled to air their views – lawfully. Officers should receive a briefing on what is protected First Amendment activity and what is criminal. Officers should especially be cautioned not to take independent action unless it is absolutely necessary to protect someone from physical harm. Any police action taken in this heated atmosphere should be a team effort – led by a supervisor. Hasty, independent action can exacerbate the situation.
Commanders also need to speak with community leaders – official and unofficial. Official leaders include elected officials, clergy and the heads of various community organizations. Unofficial leaders are people in the community who hold sway over particular groups. They can be people running for office, former politicians or just people in the neighborhood who are popular and influential. They can also be leaders of youth groups – organized or not. On the darker side they can be gang leaders or leaders of groups with fringe or extreme views or a contingent of their membership with extreme views. These groups would include the new Black Panther Party or Neo-Nazis. The police should provide information and a means to dispel rumors, but they should also listen. They should ask these leaders what the mood of their group is: Is it outrage or depression? Satisfaction or euphoria? What official plans do they have and is it possible spontaneous events will pop up?
The commander also needs to communicate with other public-safety units and agencies. Mutual aid pacts need to be reviewed. Does an overhead command or outside agency have any intelligence about planned but unannounced events? Do they have any information of impending criminality? Some criminal elements will use the opportunity of a controversial decision to further their criminal agendas. Some agencies may have undercover officers in place in troublesome groups. They can provide important information that can help the police can use to disrupt criminal – not protected – activity.
Law enforcement agencies in the area are gearing up in preparation for the State Attorney’s decision, which will reportedly come in the next few days.
What other steps should these police agencies be taking to prepare for this event?