In Colorado Springs, Richard Myers is simply the former police chief — one of the many department heads who swiftly exited following Mayor Steve Bach's election.
Myers served from early 2007 until his sudden "retirement" in October 2011 (receiving severance pay worth about $72,000). But unlike many of his snubbed contemporaries, Myers didn't disappear from the headlines. In fact, he did the opposite.
By January 2012, he was serving as Manitou Springs' interim chief. And in May of that year, he stepped in as interim police chief in Sanford, Fla.
At the time, Sanford was making international headlines due to the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white-Hispanic man. George Zimmerman said he found Trayvon Martin "suspicious" as the 17-year-old returned to his dad's girlfriend's home after a trip to buy Skittles. Ignoring the advice of a Sanford Police Department representative, he followed the boy, an altercation ensued, and Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.
Racial tensions were surging in relation to the case, and the Sanford PD's behavior wasn't helping. Chief Bill Lee Jr., who had just stepped down and would later be fired, was widely accused of mismanaging the investigation and giving Zimmerman a pass.
Sanford needed someone to run the department temporarily. Myers stepped up for 11 months, dealing with the case and the disorganization that comes with being a city's fifth police chief in less than two years. During his service, he rarely saw his wife, who remained in her teaching job in Colorado Springs.
On April 1, Cecil Smith was sworn in as Sanford's permanent chief. Myers notes Smith's "honeymoon period is going to be short," as Zimmerman's trial on charges of second-degree murder begins this week.
We asked the 50-something Myers, who's now back in town, about his experiences.
Indy: How did the Sanford officers respond to the former chief being fired?
Richard Myers: I think pretty universally everybody in the department understood that they needed some outside help, and while they didn't know me, they gave me the chance to demonstrate to them that I was there to help them and that I knew what I was doing. ... And I did not ever feel any resentment or any ill will.
In fact, after a couple of months, maybe four months, you know how you have those parking lot conversations? ... [I] had employees say, "Why don't you just stay here?" ... So, you know, that's a mixed blessing, because you're gratified to know that people are responding to your leadership, but it's hard to tell people, "That's not what I signed up to do."
Indy: You came in at a strange time because of the Martin case. What involvement did you have in that, and how did that affect your job?
RM: The first couple of weeks, I had constant questions: What did I think about the case?
Indy: From staff?
RM: No, from the media and citizens. Had I read the whole report? And I decided really early on that the tone I was going to take and expect from everybody in the department is this: There are charges filed, there's a trial coming, and anything that is said before the trial could end up interfering with the fair presentation of both the prosecution and the defense. ...
And I did read the case file and I shared my observations with the city manager, who was my client, if you will, and it was kind of interesting because the more details of the case that were released through public records, the less you heard, "Oh, Sanford really screwed this up." Because they really did do an investigation.
Indy: There were probably three pieces of the Martin case that led it to blow up: The facts of the case, the investigation, and the confused communications coming from the police department. How big a factor were the communications?
RM: I think it was a significant contribution. First of all, the police chief had only been on the job as the police chief for 10 months. He had no prior experience as a chief, he's a career police officer, a very principled guy, very knowledgeable, but with limited experience dealing with the media. ... The chief tried to defend the legal process underway, and in doing so it was made to look like [he was] not being sensitive to the family.
And I'll tell you the other significant contribution to why the police department incurred the wrath [of the public]: Where the hell was the prosecutor during all this?
Now, I've had some pretty big cases here and in other departments, and in any case approaching that magnitude, at a press conference, I'm going to have the prosecutor standing next to me. The prosecutor in this case, who was authorizing the police department when to and when not to arrest and what charges would be authorized, was totally absent in the public discourse. And I think that was a strategic mistake, for the police department to try to explain what the prosecutor's decisions were.
Indy: On another note, with the recent Ku Klux Klan fliers delivered to homes in Widefield, Colorado Springs is taking a second look at racial tensions. In Florida, which was once the center of power for the KKK, I can imagine those tensions are much stronger.
You said in your exit report that the historically poor relationship between the police and African-Americans was a problem. Is there a solution for dealing with these issues that works everywhere?
RM: Before I ever arrived [in Sanford], I asked to meet with two of the black pastors who were very instrumental in coordinating the quarterly meetings that I had with the black pastors' association here in the Springs. ... I was asking them, "If you were from the African-American community in Sanford, what would you want to see in the interim chief coming in to try and improve things?" ...
But, despite their advice — "Well, just do what you did here, because it works" — it's a different animal.
And I think, first of all, the gaps here are not as historic and severe as they are in Sanford. And so with some efforts, to begin to span some of those gaps here, we did make some progress, and it continues today. I think the relationship that CSPD has with the African-American community, it grows all the time. And in Sanford, the historical context is so much more significant.
... There's a little community within Sanford called Goldsboro, and Goldsboro became the second African-American municipality in the state of Florida back in the 1800s. And they had a main street, they had shops, and they had a mayor.
And in the early 1900s, Sanford was wanting to grow, and you know, they're bordered by a lake on the north, so you can't grow that way. And they went to the state Capitol, and despite the objections of Goldsboro, got the governor to unincorporate Goldsboro, and they immediately then annexed Goldsboro. So their whole form of government was dissolved, and now they're part of Sanford.
Indy: Is it still an African-American community?
RM: It is definitely, entirely an African-American community.
Fast-forward to the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s. The Department of Justice shows up in Sanford's City Hall and says, "Look, you've got a beautiful municipal pool here, but the only kids swimming in it are white kids. There are no black kids swimming in the pool. This violates federal law, you've got to integrate your pool."
Sanford filled the pool in with cement.
Now, stories like that are told from generation to generation. You think there's a young adult or even a child in the African-American community in Sanford who hasn't heard that story, who doesn't know very well that Goldsboro used to be a city?