Commentary: How Sanford, Fla., mismanaged a crisis

The Miami HeraldApril 3, 2012 

SANFORD — Hundreds of protesters marched here on Saturday, waving signs, shouting epithets, making demands, threatening the city with economic ruin. As they heaped ever more derision on Sanford, locals sank deeper into a bewildered despair, wondering how their picturesque town had been transformed these last few weeks into an icon of racism.

Somehow, in the national imagination, Sanford, 2012, mutated into Selma, 1965.

“It’s surreal,” said Sheri Blanche, standing in her little café/art gallery in downtown Sanford. “I don’t know how this happened. We’re a progressive city. We’re a city of artists and writers.”

But the protesters marched down 13th Street in this city of artists and writers chanting, “No justice, no peace.” They gathered on the plaza outside the Sanford Police Department to listen to old rabble-rousers Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson remonstrate against injustice in general and Sanford in particular. Sharpton had talked earlier in the week about organizing an economic boycott against Sanford merchants, adding to the local malaise.

Eleven TV satellite trucks were parked along the route. Marchers waved “Justice for Trayvon” placards. They shouted, “We want an arrest! Shot in the chest.” Vendors sold “Justice for Trayvon” T-shirts. A march leader with a bullhorn shouted, “I am!” and the marchers answered back, “Trayvon!” Here was the new face of Sanford.

In the five weeks since a zealous neighborhood watch volunteer killed young Trayvon Martin, the Sanford Police Department has failed to either arrest the shooter, George Zimmerman, or offer a coherent and credible (at least to an impatient public) explanation for their caution. “I was a policeman long enough to know incompetence when I see it,” said Thomas Ferguson, who retired last year after 31 years in the Miami-Dade Police Department. Ferguson and about 60 members of Miami-Dade’s Progressive Officers Club had bused up to join Saturday’s protest. “There’s a strong case of incompetence here.”

Of course, incompetence is not quite the same thing as racist intent. In retrospect, the city cops surely could have done a better job defending their actions, or inactions. After all, cops wanted to have Zimmerman charged after the Feb. 26 shooting, but the Seminole County State Attorney reportedly told them to wait. And they could have better explained how they were hamstrung by the 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law that the state Legislature had passed over the fervent objections of police and prosecutors. But they fumbled their opportunities even as the narrative was seized by outsiders.

And the Trayvon Martin investigation descended into an astounding study in crisis mismanagement, bringing a deluge of infamy to an unlikely setting.

Sanford, an old inland port on a wide bulge in the St. John’s River called Lake Martin, seems much too cute for its unseemly new image, with its downtown streets paved in bricks, with sidewalk cafes and art galleries and antique shops and wine bars and live music spilling out of the bars into the night, with a marina and a nicely designed 1.2 mile pedestrian concourse along the city’s waterfront.

“This is no redneck place like they’re making out in the media,” said Melanie Green, browsing amid hand-painted ceramics and stained glass at a downtown art shop. “I know,” she added with a sly smile. “I drove down here from Deland to get away from rednecks.”

Some 53,000 people make Sanford home, about 30 percent of them black, 20 percent Hispanic and the rest a mix of artsy bohemians, retirees, service workers and refugees from the soul-killing sprawl of Orlando, 30 miles west of here. “We’re the anti-Orlando,” a store manager told me. “We’re everything Orlando isn’t.” (Orlando might prefer that distinction lately.)

The new Selma somehow has a black city manager, a black city commissioner and a black acting police chief (appointed after Chief Bill Lee Jr. lost a no-confidence vote by the city commission last week.). Yet, the city has allowed itself to be utterly redefined by the Trayvon Martin shooting. City police — after Lee’s public remarks only seemed to exacerbate public outrage — tried to clam up, even as police reports and witness statements and surveillance videos were leaked out the back door.

On Wednesday, City Hall offered another dismal example of its faltering grip on the story, issuing a news release warning that police would arrest reporters on stalking charges if they contacted off-duty city employees. The criminal act would include all questions by telephone, e-mail or face to face.

By 7 p.m. that same evening, the order was rescinded with another news release regretting “any inconvenience caused by the improvident wording of the advisory.”

When I asked crisis management expert Irving Schenkler, director of the Management Communications Program at New York University, his thoughts about the Trayvon Martin affair, he said, via e-mail, “Confronted with the glare of inquiry, the common temptation is to close down and say as little as possible (as you well know, the phrase is “no comment”) which opens the source to further speculation and more inquiry. It’s a compounding effect.”

Daniel Diermeier, of Northwestern University’s Department of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences, wrote me to say, “Police departments (but also other government agencies, universities etc. but also many companies) are not well prepared to handle these situations. In a fast moving media environment you must have effective crisis management that maintains trust with your audiences.”

The “fast-moving media environment” encompassed far more than the few local television news crews and newspaper reporters the cops in Sanford usually encounter. Cable TV news fastened onto the story, their bloviators in full voice, offering up tidbits of information as major revelations. But it was social media that fired the Trayvon Martin reaction, disseminating facts, emotions, opinions and embellishments through Facebook and especially Twitter with stunning rapidity.

“I don’t have any special insight into how the city officials there have handled this particular situation beyond what I’ve seen reported, but we’ve definitely seen a number of examples recently where organizations (Bank of America, Komen/Planned Parenthood) have been taken aback by the speed with which anger over decisions people dislike can go viral and stir widespread outrage,” Aaron W. Smith, of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, told me by e-mail.

Smith said Pew has found that black Internet users, the engine behind the Trayvon outrage, use Twitter far more proportionately than their white counterparts. About 12 percent of white Internet users employ Twitter, Smith reported, about 7% on a typical day. Compare that to 28 percent of black Internet users tweeting, 13 percent of them on a typical day.

“Just from watching all of this go down in social media, it seems to me that the Sanford Police Dept. and the city made missteps all along the way,” said Jeanette Castillo, a professor of digital media at the Florida State University College of Communication and Information. “This may be understandable, since the public outcry was somewhat delayed. However, since the public outcry, it seems both the city and the police department have failed to appreciate the perception that this issue is creating about their community.”

“In terms of crisis management, they have failed to provide a coherent, consistent story, and there seems to be nobody who is stepping up to speak for the police and the city,” Castillo said. “Rather, this information is coming out in drips and dribbles.’’

Twitter speculators and cable television’s stable of self-anointed experts were left to cobble the few facts and witness statements together into narratives compatible with their particular world view. And Sanford? Well, Sanford missed an opportunity to assure “the public that the community did not condone the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and that every effort was being made to see that justice was done,” Castillo said. “Right now, it appears that the city of Sanford was not concerned about the incident.”

That’s the perception. Not the reality, insisted Sheri Blanche, who moved to Sanford five years ago from Fort Lauderdale and is about to open her third restaurant in the most misunderstood town in Florida. “Sanford had been like a wonderful secret,” she said, against a dazzling backdrop of her café’s paintings and sculptures.

“We used to worry that too many people would find out about us.”

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