WASHINGTON • The mayor of Sanford, Fla., whose city two years ago was rocked by demonstrations in the wake of the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, has been intensely interested in the tensions in Ferguson and St. Louis County.
"We have been keeping a very close eye," said Jeff Triplett, 45, who was born in St. Louis, grew up near Springfield, and whose parents still live in Missouri.
There are differences between Sanford and St. Louis. Michael Brown, 18, was killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and a grand jury is hearing evidence to see whether Wilson should face charges. A second fatal police shooting Wednesday night in south St. Louis claimed the life an another black 18-year-old, identified by relatives as VonDerrit Myers Jr. Both shootings prompted demonstrations and violence.
In Sanford, however, Zimmerman was a civilian neighborhood watch volunteer when he shot and killed Martin in 2012. Demonstrations and tense times ensued, before and after Zimmerman was tried and acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
But there are similarities. Both Ferguson and Sanford have white mayors in areas with significant minority populations. The Justice Department is conducting separate civil rights investigations in Sanford and Ferguson, and there are calls for one in the St. Louis shooting. Both places have had Justice Department mediators working behind the scenes to help bring disparate voices together and calm the situation.
The raw emotions that Triplett, a bank vice president and part-time mayor, is seeing out of Ferguson and St. Louis seem very familiar.
"That wound, the scab was scraped off that wound," he said.
"That wound" refers to racial divisions, and as they wracked his city after the Martin shooting and the ensuing trial, Triplett said that he learned that "you can't heal in a day and you can't force someone to heal. You can't force someone to change their thoughts. They have to come out with it themselves. You just have to take your steps, get everyone to the table and get them talking."
He credited behind-the-scenes mediators from the Justice Department's Community Relations Service with helping to ease tensions in Sanford. In Ferguson, from two to eight mediators have been quietly working since the day after Brown's shooting, said Grande H. Lum, director of the service, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch.
"Our job is to be impartial," Lum said. "We are not taking sides. We are trying to help them bring their voices to the table, to make sure the voices are heard."
In Sanford, Mayor Triplett said, mediators advised him to address a rally of demonstrators after Martin's shooting while sharing a stage with the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
At first that seemed to be a bad suggestion. Triplett was booed off the stage. But Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., who is black, called him back and vouched for him by saying that Triplett supported a Justice Department "open book" investigation.
"That really subsided the animosities out there," Triplett said, and it became "absolutely a key moment" as the city began recovering from the Martin shooting, trial and demonstrations.
That recovery continues. Triplett said he still talks frequently to those mediators by phone, and he expects them to be back in person when the Justice Department announces the results of its Martin investigation.
They are "very nondescript, very behind-the-scenes," he said. Did they make a difference? "Oh, absolutely," Triplett said.
He said he hopes leaders in Ferguson and St. Louis County are getting a lot of that help now.