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Zimmerman verdict sparks worry of uproar

5:20 AM, Jul 13, 2013   |    comments
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SANFORD, Fla. - Remembering the passions that inflamed the country with debates over race, profiling and gun laws, cities across Florida are bracing for protests and possible riots as the trial of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman winds down.

Shortly after the case went to the jury Friday afternoon, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith and Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger held a press conference to urge calm when the verdict is rendered.

"This is a trying time for all of us," Smith said. But he said the residents of Sanford should use the case to discuss, debate and exchange ideas peacefully, no matter the outcome of the trial.

"I'd like to remind everyone that the city of Sanford is a peaceful location and it has been since that time 17 months ago," he said.

Eslinger warned, "We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law."

Zimmerman is on trial for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012 in a gated community in Sanford. The case sparked waves of protests across the nation.

Now, as the jury begins its deliberations, police departments, community leaders and pastors are preparing for any civil unrest.

In Miami-Dade County, where Trayvon, 17, lived with his mother, police have been monitoring social media for possible trouble. In a message on Twitter and Facebook, the department started a campaign urging residents to be "vocal, not violent."

They say in their posts that officers are working with community leaders, members of the local clergy, and local, state, and federal agencies to prevent violence after the verdict. The department has set up a rumor control hotline and two areas in Miami where people can protest peacefully.

"It's all right to be vocal, but we don't want to be violent," said the Rev. Walter Richardson, a longtime pastor and chairman of Miami-Dade County's Community Relations Board, which has been holding town-hall-style meetings about the case. "We've already lost one soul and we don't want to lose any more."

Here in Sanford, where the fatal shooting occurred on Feb. 26, 2012, the police have been going door-to-door to talk to residents. Police Chief Cecil Smith and city officials told CNN they are worried that someone from outside the community may spark violence in the city of about 50,000.

The officials have been working with pastors and community leaders to help them keep the peace. Smith told CNN the city has a plan in place to stop any Rodney King-style riot, though he would not detail the specifics.

King, who was black, was beaten by Los Angeles police 20 years ago. The incident was caught on videotape and after the officers were acquitted in court, riots broke out that left more than 50 people dead and thousands injured.

In Florida, communities including Miami and Seminole County, where Sanford is located, are monitoring the Zimmerman trial.

Sarasota police encouraged residents to have a "civil and peaceful response" to the verdict.

"When a verdict is read, not everyone is going to be happy," Chief Bernadette DiPino says. "We are asking the public to take part in peaceful responses and speak with their mouths, not with their hands and not use weapons of any kind."

DiPino stood with community leaders and lit a candle in memory of Trayvon Martin during a press conference Thursday.

Broward County in South Florida has issued a public service announcement urging people to "raise your voice and not your hands" after the verdict.

"With the verdict coming, we wanted to get ahead of the curve and not wait until something happened," Broward County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Keyla Concepcion told USA TODAY. "We want to get people talking now. We know the power of social media. We aren't sitting here with our arms crossed just waiting for something to happen."

Florida pastors have been working with police to prevent violence. They say they are focused on prayer, not protests.

"For so many of the youth, I think you have to understand that the way this case was handled seems like a slap in the face. How could Zimmerman shoot Trayvon and by his own admission be free to leave 12 hours later? You've also had Trayvon demonized," said Pastor Glenn Dames of St. James AME Church in Titusville, one of the early organizers of protests in Brevard County.

"Had everything been done at the beginning, then you likely would not have had these tensions. The tensions wouldn't be this big. Ultimately, whatever the verdict may be, it's in God's hands," he said.

Nearly 20 area pastors met with police in Sanford to discuss preparations for the trial's outcome.

Nationally, police in cities, including New York, Detroit, Oakland and Atlanta, say they are not anticipating major protests or riots.

Contributing: Natalie DiBlasio; Molly Vorwerck; Florida Today; and the Associated Press. Bello reported from McLean, Va.

Marisol Bello and Rick Neale, USA TODAY

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