SANFORD, Fla. — Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, under fire for his handling of the investigation into the killing of unarmed Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin, temporarily removed himself from office Thursday, a day after city commissioners gave him a vote of no confidence.
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 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 ultimately was 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 in Miami-Dade, Trayvon, 17, went to Sanford with his father to visit the father’s girlfriend. The family won’t say why the teen was suspended, but said the trip to Central Florida was designed in part so that 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 George 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 he later claimed self-defense in the killing.
Lee was hammered for his handling of the case, which experts say was marred with irregularities. He gave incorrect information to reporters, and the family believed he and the department were more interested in offering excuses for the shooter than in making an arrest.
The relationship between the boy’s family and police deteriorated from the start. Trayvon’s family believed the police department deliberately covered up Zimmerman’s past arrest record, portraying him as having a clean record because he had no convictions.
The family had to file a lawsuit for the release of 911 tapes, but they believed 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 Miami 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 cellphone, 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 to his death.
As national outrage grew, protests were held Wednesday from Miami to New York. The Rev. Al Sharpton is expected Thursday in Sanford, for a vigil that promises to draw thousands of participants. More than 1,000 students at Carol City High School walked out Thursday in a Twitter-generated march that quickly spread to Miami Northwestern High.
In an interview with The Miami Herald last week, Lee insisted that the investigation was thorough, fair and unbiased.
“We are basing our investigation based on facts and circumstances not the color of the individual’s skin,” he said. “I can say that till I am blue in the face. As a white man in a uniform, I know that doesn’t mean anything to anybody, but that is the truth.”