SANFORD, Fla. -- The city commission on Wednesday gave a vote of “no confidence” to beleaguered police Chief Bill Lee Jr., under fire for his department’s investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen shot last month by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
The measure was passed 3 to 2, and comes after a tumultuous two weeks for Lee, whose department has failed to bring charges against George Zimmerman, 28, who told investigators he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him on Feb. 26.
Lee has said his department has neither the evidence nor legal grounds to arrest Zimmerman, who he said was legally carrying the concealed 9 mm pistol the night of the shooting. Lee said Zimmerman had the right to defend himself with deadly force.
Martin was returning to his father's home in the gated community from a convenience store. He had a can of iced tea and a pack of Skittles.
As the furor over the case continues to spread across the country, so have calls for Lee’s ouster. With protests in New York City and Miami on Wednesday and major rallies planned for Thursday and early next week in Sanford, local officials have said they do not believe Lee can continue to lead the city’s police department.
While the city commission vote is not binding, Lee’s fate now rests with city manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., who has the authority to fire Lee. Bonaparte told HuffPost last week that he was weighing his options. Bonaparte told reporters on Wednesday that he would postpone deciding Lee's fate until investigations by outside agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Those probes might detail missteps by Sanford during the initial investigation into Martin’s death.
“I’ve never thought the chief was a racist or anything. It’s more of a lack of experience and a lack of leadership,” Commissioner Velma Williams said during Wednesday's meeting, according to the Miami Herald.
Williams, the only black city commissioner, was among the first to ask the chief to step aside.
The department has been criticized for several aspects of the investigation. Officers initially told Martin’s parents that Zimmerman had a squeaky clean-record. He was arrested for violence and battery against a police officer in 2005. Martin was tested for drugs and alcohol after his death. Zimmerman was not tested. Police failed to check cell phone records for Martin and Zimmerman after the shooting, a lawyer for Martin's family said. And witnesses have said police did not return phone calls, attempted to manipulate them during questioning and have twisted their statements to fit Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.
“I take no pleasure in publicly flogging our police chief. He’s a good man,” City Commissioner Mark McCarty said at the outset of the meeting, according to the Orlando Sentinel. McCarty said he had called for Lee’s firing more than a week ago during a meeting with Bonaparte. Lingering questions cast such a negative light on the city and the department that he thought it time for Lee to step down, he said.
Chief Lee has said repeatedly that his department did not gather enough evidence from the night of the shooting to contradict Zimmerman's self-defense claim and charge him with a crime. He said Zimmerman noticed Martin walking home from a store, thought he looked suspicious and followed him.
At some point Martin noticed that he was being trailed, Lee has said. The chief said Martin turned and confronted Zimmerman, asking why he was being followed. At that point Lee said a confrontation ensued. Lee says that Zimmerman said he stepped out of his truck to jot down the address to give to a 911 dispatcher when Martin attacked him from behind.
Lawyers for Martin's family have presented police with phone records to dispute Zimmerman’s self-defense claims. Martin’s 16-year-old girlfriend was on the phone with him moments before he was shot. The police department also released audio 911 recordings from the night of the shooting that include one of Zimmerman being told by a dispatcher not to follow Martin, who started running. Zimmerman did not heed the dispatcher’s advice.
In a letter posted recently on the city’s website, Lee wrote that “By Florida statute, law enforcement was prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”
“Additionally, when any police officer makes an arrest for any reason, the officer must swear and affirm that he/she is making the arrest in good faith and with probable cause,” Lee wrote. “If the arrest is done maliciously and in bad faith, the officer and the city may be held liable.”
Sanford is gearing up for a major rally on Thursday night, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and several thousand expected protesters.
And in New York City on Wednesday, where thousands marched in support of Martin, his parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, vowed to keep fighting.
"We're not going to stop until we get justice," his father, Tracy Martin, told the crowd, according to the Associated Press. "My son did not deserve to die," said Fulton, the teen's mother. "My heart is in pain, but to see the support of all of you really makes a difference."