By Frances Robles, McClatchy Newspapers –
MIAMI — A year before George Zimmerman killed a Miami Gardens teenager, he stood before a City Hall community forum with a grievance: Sanford cops are lazy, he told the then-mayor elect.
The community college criminal justice major said he knew because he went on ride-alongs with the Sanford police.
“And what I saw was disgusting,” Zimmerman said, according to a clip of a recording of the January 2011 meeting obtained by The Miami Herald. “The officer showed me his favorite hiding spots for taking naps, explained to me that he doesn’t carry a long gun in his vehicle because, in his words, ‘anything that requires a long gun requires a lot of paperwork, and you’re going to find me as far away from it.’
“He took two lunch breaks and attended a going away party for one of his fellow officers.”
Zimmerman’s public lambasting of the police department and its outgoing chief is rich with irony: A year later, the new police chief took a national beating over how the department handled Zimmerman’s shooting of high school junior Trayvon Martin. The department was accused of sloppy police work and favoritism — in Zimmerman’s favor.
The recording raises new questions about whether the neighborhood watch volunteer received preferential treatment that night because he was familiar to officers in the department — or whether the officer he skewered publicly was among the ones who took him into custody. It suggests Zimmerman was telling the truth when he said he rallied against the police department in a controversial case involving the beating of a homeless black man, and throws doubt on the Sanford Police Department’s long-standing position that nobody at the department knew Zimmerman before the Feb. 26 killing.
From the start, attorneys for Trayvon’s family have said that as a wannabe cop, Zimmerman had been protected by the “blue wall.” Police Chief Bill Lee denied knowing Zimmerman, who was a criminal justice student at the same community college where Lee conducted police academy training for new recruits.
A video released last week by the state attorney prosecuting the case shows Zimmerman, a bandage on his head, walking unescorted at the police station three days after the killing. Records show Lee and Zimmerman exchanged courteous e-mails last fall, when the volunteer wrote to praise a police department employee.
“The deeper questions here are: What are the relationships?” said Natalie Jackson, an attorney for Trayvon’s family. “We have always had a concern about the relationships.”
Jackson was also the attorney for Sherman Ware, a homeless man whose December 2010 beating led to the ouster of former police chief Brian Tooley.
Justin Collison, son of a Sanford Police lieutenant, was caught on video punching Ware, yet no arrest was made for weeks. The incident came to exemplify nepotism and favoritism at the Sanford Police Department. Tooley was forced out the same day Collison, the lieutenant’s son, turned himself in.
The community forum in which Zimmerman spoke, hosted by the incoming mayor and several city commissioners, took place at City Hall just five days later.
Over the past few weeks, members of Zimmerman’s family have said he was so upset about the Ware case that he posted fliers on cars parked at black churches urging everyone to attend the community forum. At the meeting, Zimmerman did not mention Ware by name, but said Tooley should be denied his pension.
“I would like to state that the law is written in black and white, and it should not and cannot be enforced in the gray for those who are in the thin blue line,” Zimmerman said. “I would like to know what actions the commission is taking to repeal Mr. Tooley’s pension. I am not asking you to repeal his pension. I believe he has already forfeited his pension by his illegal cover-up, corruption and what happened in his department.”
Since the claims about Zimmerman’s involvement in the Ware case first surfaced last month, Jackson denied that Zimmerman was active among those who participated in community activism on Ware’s behalf. She said she found Zimmerman’s emphatic statements against the police chief in 2011 curious, because even Ware’s family and attorney had no beef with the former top cop. If anything, she said, they believed Tooley and another official were scape-goated for leaking information when none of the officers or supervisors responsible for dragging their feet on Collison’s case were disciplined.
Jackson said all of Sanford — not just the black community — was in an uproar over the case, because of the perception that Collison’s wealthy, influential family had intervened on behalf of their son.
“People wanted Justin so bad,” Jackson said. “They wanted to use Sherman to get Justin. Nobody really cared about Sherman. They cared about a little rich boy getting everything he wants.”
Last month, someone identifying himself as a member of Zimmerman’s family forwarded The Herald a copy of a flier Zimmerman supposedly posted on the cars of black churches, urging everyone to attend the community forum. The same person also sent a letter to the area NAACP and to Ware’s sister, Tonnetta Foster, making the same claims and complaining that the black community had rushed to judgment of Zimmerman and conveniently forgotten his role in the Ware case.
“I have never seen that guy in my life,” Foster told The Miami Herald, speaking about Zimmerman. “I feel like he is using that case to make it look like he was a good guy, when I feel he is a liar and a murderer.”
Earlier this month The Herald visited five of the six churches where Zimmerman’s relative claimed he had left the fliers. None recalled such an announcement.
“If there had been a flier, it would have been on my car. They always put it on the pastor’s car,” said Rev. Michael Griffin, pastor at Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church, where Foster worships. “Nobody got fliers here.”
First Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church Rev. H.D. Rucker was more direct: “Tell them Pastor Rucker said he’s telling a lie. Lying on the black church like he’s doing, I’m beginning to think he is a racist.”
Zimmerman’s lawyer said his client was not so much interested in the chief’s pension as he was concerned about fairness.
“I think he was upset with the cops, because they treated the homeless guy poorly and treated Collison very well,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara said. “At the (community) meeting, he was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’”
O’Mara said Zimmerman went on several ride-alongs with police, including one with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. After the 2011 community meeting, Sanford Police offered to take him on another one but he declined because he was so bothered by the Collison case, O’Mara said.
The defense attorney said Zimmerman told him his fliers were mentioned at the community forum. But contrary to what Zimmerman’s mother testified at his bond hearing, O’Mara said, he did not receive any special commendation from the mayor at the forum.
Sanford Police Capt. Robert O’Connor said Wednesday the department does not know when Zimmerman went on the ride-along, with who, or “if in fact he ever did ride with SPD.”
City records show Zimmerman’s March 2010 application to ride along with the police was approved by the top brass of the department, even though a background check revealed Zimmerman had a criminal history, though no convictions. On his application, Zimmerman said he wanted to go on the ride-along to “solidify my interest in a career in law enforcement.”
Interim Police Chief Richard Myers said in a statement Wednesday it would be “inappropriate” to speculate or come to conclusions about Zimmerman’s comments at the community forum.
“Neither the city manager nor the interim police chief were with the City of Sanford at the time the recording was made, and neither were here during the tenure of the former chief,” Myers said. “As a police chief I embrace the notion that transparency helps build public trust, but in this case, the need to preserve the sanctity of a criminal prosecution, for both the prosecutor and the defense, requires us to eschew making any comments that could taint the process.”