Florida Police Prepare for Response to Zimmerman Verdict
(SANFORD, Fla.) -- Police in South Florida are bracing for the verdict in the racially charged George Zimmerman murder trial, creating places for people to peacefully protest, monitoring social media and urging people to remain calm.
"It's a trying time for all of us. We're not sure what the verdict is going to bring but it's a great opportunity for evolution of the Sanford community," Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith said at a news conference Friday as the jury began its deliberations.
Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman, 29, maintains he shot Martin, 17, in self-defense, while the state argued that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin and concluded he was a criminal.
The case took on racial overtones after police declined to charge Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic. Martin was black.
Zimmerman was charged with murder nearly two months later by a special prosecutor appointed by the state.
Because of the tension over the case, the judge initially said she will delay the announcement of the jury's eventual verdict by two hours to give police ample time to prepare for security. It's not clear if that is still the plan.
Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Martin's family, told ABC News Friday that he did not expect violence.
"I certainly don't think Trayvon Martin supporters are going to be emotionally overcharged to act out in a way that's not responsible because they were very emotional when we were trying to get an arrest, and they were very peaceful, there was no violence," he said.
The jury could let Zimmerman walk free or convict him on second degree murder or manslaughter, charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life if convicted of the most serious charge.
Smith said the aftermath of the shooting had changed the "mindset, perception of what we see in our country today."
In Sanford, a town of 50,000 people, he said law enforcement has been knocking on doors, introducing themselves to people in order to foster better relations between police and the community.
In Miami-Dade County, where Martin lived with his mother, police have launched a campaign to encourage people to "be vocal, not violent" and have designated two parks where people can assemble peacefully to express their feelings.
A "rumor control" hotline, which is being staffed 24 hours a day, was launched in the county on Friday to address any problems that may arise after the verdict has been read. Authorities also said they are monitoring social media.
In Sarasota, Fla., at a news conference, Chief Bernadette DiPino encouraged people to react in a "civil and peaceful" manner to the verdict.
"When a verdict is read, not everyone is going to be happy," she said. "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."
More than 25,000 people assembled peacefully in Sanford in March 2012 to protest after police initially refused to arrest Zimmerman.
"They wanted an investigation, they asked for an arrest, they asked for charges to be made and they asked for a trial. Each of those things has taken place," Smith said.
Now, he said, "there's nothing on the horizon for us other than to move forward."
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio