More fallout from the killing of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American teen armed with an iced tea and Skiittles who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, 28, who had a gun with bullets. The Chief Police under fire for mishandling or covering up (choose your characterization among the two now making the rounds in a case that is taking on social and political implications) has temporarily stepped down:
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. said Thursday that he would temporarily step down from his position over how the Trayvon Martin shooting case was handled.
On Wednesday, the Sanford City Commission voted 3-2 that it had no confidence in Lee over how the case has been handled.
Velma Williams, the city’s only black commissioner, said she spent 15 years trying to bring together the black community and white community, and the Martin episode has taken an emotional toll. “And now this. It’s a national embarrassment,” she said.
Commissioners Patty Mahany and Randy Jones supported the police chief, who came on the job last May.
“I would not want to see someone tried in the court of public opinion without all the facts,” Jones said.
Lee, stressing his credentials as a former homicide investigator, said that he stands by the police department and the investigation.
“I am aware my role as leader of this department has become a distraction from the investigation,” Lee said, adding that “temporarily removing” himself from the role would restore a “semblance of calm to the city which has been in turmoil for several weeks.”
Two captains will head the department until an interim chief can be found, according to the City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. The city manager did not specify whether Lee would continue to be paid his $102,000 salary, or when he would return to his job as police chief.
Lee was on the job for just 10 months. He joined the department after a 27-year career at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office with a mission to clean up a department marked by internal turmoil and race-related scandals.
But the national pressure over a perceived bungling of the investigation was ultimately too much for city officials, who are bracing for a thousands-strong rally Thursday night, and another one at their meeting Monday.
Suspended from Michael Krop Senior High School, Trayvon, 17, went to Sanford with his father to visit the father’s girlfriend. The family won’t say why the boy was suspended, but said the trip to Central Florida was in part designed so the father and son could spend time together getting Trayvon focused.
Trayvon left the house on the evening of Feb. 26 to walk to a nearby store. On his way back, neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious and called police.
It’s unclear what happened next, but Trayvon was killed and the shooter never charged. He said the boy jumped him, and later claimed self defense in the killing.
The Herald article also includes these interesting points:
The family had to file a lawsuit for the release of 911 tapes, but they felt the department was often willing to release information that was favorable to Zimmerman.
• As evidence that the incident was not a case of racial profiling, Lee told The Miami Herald that when the police dispatch operator asked Zimmerman the race of the suspicious person he saw, the Hispanic neighborhood watch captain did not know. Yet when the recording of that conversation was made public, Zimmerman clearly says, “he looks black.”
• Initial police reports never mentioned that Zimmerman had a bloody nose or a wet shirt that showed evidence of a struggle. Attorneys for the dead teen’s family believe the information was added in a second report to justify the lack of an arrest.
• Police said witness statements supported Zimmerman’s account. But several of the witnesses expressed surprise, telling The Herald that they reported hearing someone crying for help just before a shot ended the cries. The 911 tapes of witness calls bolstered their claims.
• One of the witnesses who heard the crying said she called a detective repeatedly, but said he was not interested because her account differed from Zimmerman’s.
• For nearly a month, police never noticed a profanity Zimmerman mumbled under his breath when he called police, which some people believe was accompanied by a muffled racial slur.
• Even though investigators have the dead boy’s cell phone, it was Trayvon’s father who combed through the phone records to discover that his son was talking to a girlfriend in the moments that led up to his death.
At an earlier NAACP forum in Sanford, some complained about a history of local police intimidation.
“It’s really getting out of hand,” one person said, “and there’s too many young people that have died.”
As that tension rises, the co-author of the Stand Your Ground law, in effect since 2005, is now saying it may need to be clarified.
At least two more rallies are planned for Thursday following massive rallies in New York and Miami. Zimmerman remains in hiding.
The Sanford City manager Norton Bonaparte said that Capt. Scott O’Connor will be the interim chief.
Bonaparte asked for the public’s understanding of the justice system.
“This is a very difficult time for this community. It’s a very difficult time for our nation,” said Bonaparte. “This incident has gathered international attention. I ask that the citizens both of Sanford and of the country understand that the judicial process has been in place. What the city of Sanford wants more than anything else for the Trayvon Martin family is justice.”
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.