MIAMI
07/12/2013 03:56 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2013

George Zimmerman Verdict Reaction: South Florida Leaders Predict Calm

AP

With a verdict looming in the nationally televised trial over the killing of South Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, local community leaders are bracing for an emotional reaction to the jurors' decision -- but predicting calm.

Pastors, youth leaders and police officials have been preparing for the public's response, especially if Sanford neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman is found not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Martin, 17, of Miami Gardens.

"There is a bit of uneasiness," said the Rev. Gary McCleod, pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Pompano Beach. "Especially young people -- people the age of Trayvon Martin -- they are following this more than any trial in a long, long time.

"I believe that folks will demonstrate, but not to the point it will get out of hand," McCleod said. "No riots or anything like that. Maybe some outbursts."

Jurors were expected to start deliberating Friday afternoon, with a verdict possible as early as nightfall Friday.

The killing occurred in February 2012, and the case quickly became charged with race.

Zimmerman said he fired in self-defense when he fatally shot Martin. Still, the teenager's death last year turned into a top news story across the U.S., when more than a million people signed a petition, outraged that Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, had shot an unarmed black teen in a gated community and not been arrested.

This week's public pleas for peace are a precaution, officials say. Few predict the sort of violence that followed verdicts in Miami police shootings in decades past.

"We are monitoring the situation along with everybody else," Sgt. Freddie Cruz, a spokesman for the Miami Police Department, said Thursday. "But we are not expecting any issues. This is more of a Sanford issue, not a police issue. We're fine."

That confidence in a measured reaction to the outcome of trial also was voiced earlier this week when Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and his top brass met with several police chiefs and dozens of pastors and community leaders from throughout the county to go over plans for post-verdict fallout.

Israel said he had no reason to expect any civil unrest.

Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday that law enforcement across the state is prepared for "whatever happens" after the verdict is announced.

"We've got great sheriffs, police chiefs, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, I've been in contact with them, they're ready for whatever happens," Scott said during a morning appearance on WPEC-Ch. 12 in West Palm Beach. "But hopefully the right thing happens here, and we'll have a verdict that everybody understands."

One potential factor that could come into play following the Zimmerman verdict is the power of social media, which did not exist when rioting broke out after the acquittals of white police officers charged with fatal shootings of black men in Miami in the 1980s and 1990s.

Twitter was cited as playing a major role in the felling Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and it along with Facebook and other media can be used to draw a crowd in a hurry.

The possibility of violence was discussed Tuesday at a town hall meeting at the North Dade Regional Library attended by members of Martin's family. One relative said the Martin family had already set up a Facebook page to urge people to conduct peaceful protests.

In Boca Raton, police spokeswoman Sandra Boonenberg said police are aware of the community interest in the trial and will be watching social media and other communication channels.

"We will continue to share information with other agencies from throughout South Florida," she said.

Palm Beach County sheriff's spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the Sheriff's Office also is monitoring Zimmerman trial. Regardless of what happens, deputies will be ready to react, she said.

"We are keeping the lines of communication open with our community leaders, civic activists, members of the clergy, as well as local, state and federal agencies," she said in an email statement Thursday.

She adds that a lot of the chatter they've seen has been outside of Palm Beach County.

In Lake Clarke Shores, Police Chief Wes Smith III said there are contingency plans in place throughout Palm Beach County.

"I personally do not foresee any problems within our community, but I think the public should stay informed and be careful in your travels if there are disturbances," he said in a post on the Town of Lake Clarke Shores Facebook page.

In Hollywood, the Rev. Michael K. Anderson, of New Jerusalem First Baptist Church, said he has heard many rumors and much erroneous information about the trial, some inflammatory. Still, he remains confident that calm will prevail.

"The rumors seem to be our reality, and that's sad commentary," said Anderson. "But I say leave the verdict to the conscience of the jury selected. And I expect that our community, all of Broward, to remain calm as they have been.

"I am optimistic because our authorities have taken good steps to make sure we keep the peace."

News Service of Florida and the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

mwclary@tribune.com ___

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