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.
And he should know: Zimmerman, a community college criminal justice major, said he went on ride-alongs with the Sanford Police.
“And what I saw was disgusting,” Zimmerman said, according to 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 chief took a national beating over how the department handled Zimmerman’s shooting of high school junior Trayvon Martin. The recording raises new questions about whether the neighborhood watch volunteer might have received preferential treatment the night of the shooting because he was familiar to officers in the department — or if any of the officers who took him into custody were the among those he criticized.
The department was widely condemned for letting Zimmerman go home after being questioned. From the start, attorneys for Trayvon’s family said that Zimmerman was a wannabe cop, protected by the “blue wall.”
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee denied at the time knowing Zimmerman, saying he had no relationship with the police department. City records show Lee exchanged emails with Zimmerman last year, when the neighborhood watch volunteer wrote to the chief to praise the department’s volunteer program coordinator.
A video released last week by the State Attorney prosecuting the case shows Zimmerman freely walked about the police station unescorted three days after the shooting.
“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.”
Sanford Police said they have no records showing who Zimmerman rode along with, or if it ever even happened. Zimmerman applied to the ride-along in March 2010. His application was approved by the top brass of the department, records show, even though a background check showed 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 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.”
The community forum Zimmerman spoke at was called by Sanford’s mayor, Jeff Triplett, who at that time had yet to officially take office. The forum took place in the wake of a scandal involving the son of a police lieutenant, Justin Collison, who was captured on video punching a homeless man named Sherman Ware.
A month went by after the December 2010 attack before any arrests were made. On the same day 21-year-old Collison turned himself in, Police Chief Brian Tooley was forced out.
At the community meeting, Zimmerman also raised concerns about whether Tooley should receive 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.
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