SANFORD, Fla. -- At a hastily called press conference Thursday afternoon, Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. announced that beleaguered police Chief Bill Lee Jr. is stepping down temporarily amid growing anger over his handling of the investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin. Bonaparte told reporters that he hoped the move would "restore calm to the city of Sanford" and help speed the case through the legal process. He said that the city has not yet appointed an interim chief.
"I am aware that my role as the head of the department has become a distraction," said Lee at the press conference. "I have come to the decision to temporarily remove myself."
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Lee's resignation comes just hours before a massive rally, scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday night in a local park and led by Rev. Al Sharpton. Thousands are expected to attend as the wave of resentment and anger has spilled from this city of just over 50,000 to as far away as New York City. Discontent over the handling of the case has also gone viral online, with almost 1 million people signing an online petition, and celebrities like Spike Lee and Gabrielle Union taking to Twitter to speak out for justice.
Turner Clayton, head of the local NAACP, said he'd been meeting with city officials for more than a week, pushing for Lee's firing or resignation. He said that while Lee's temporary resignation is a good start, ultimately the community wants his permanent removal.
"I'm elated that the chief decided to step aside and allow the city to heal," Clayton said, "But it will be a whole lot better if he just goes ahead and resigns permanently. This is just a temporary fix for right now, of course, we're looking for a permanent fix."
In dragging his feet, Clayton said, Bonaparte is putting his own political career in Sanford in jeopardy. While the police chief serves at the pleasure of the city manager, the manager serves at the pleasure of the city commission. "His stubbornness could cost him his job," Clayton said.
Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, stated that "There's been a whole lot of progress in just a few days. While the wheels of justice are turning more slowly than the nation wants, than this city wants, the reality is we can see them beginning to turn. They are beginning to turn because, frankly, this city is coming together in ways that some people have said just weren't possible, and people in this town are actually raising their voices and saying, 'This is our city, and it will be accountable to us.'"
Jealous reiterated the call for Zimmerman's arrest, and said, "We've got to get Mr. Zimmerman behind bars. He has got to be locked up. People need to know if their son or daughter is stalked and killed in cold blood, that their killer will be put behind bars."
The move comes a day after city commissioners voted "no confidence" in Lee during a meeting Wednesday evening. Shortly before Lee's announcement, Mayor Jeff Triplett told HuffPost that he thought the chief's time had come. Asked whether or not the quickly called press conference would announce a shake-up in the police department or a change in leadership, Triplett responded "I hope," and stated that "the commission has spoken," referring to its earlier vote of no confidence.He said it would be in the best interest of the city and the department for Lee to "step aside so the investigation is over, at minimum."
Lee has come under increasing fire over his department's investigation into the killing of Martin, who was shot on Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, who told police he shot the teen in self-defense, moments after calling 911 to report a suspicious person.
The Justice Department, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement all agreed in the last week to join the investigation. During that time, local officials have been pressuring Bonaparte to fire Lee. Bonaparte told Huffington Post Black Voices last week that he was weighing all of his options, and said Wednesday night that he wanted to postpone a decision until those outside investigations into the killing and the department's handling of the case were resolved.
Local residents and community leaders, particularly in the black community, have said they have absolutely no faith in the Sanford police or Lee, who came into office less than a year ago after another scandal brought down the previous chief of police.
Chief Lee's predecessor, Brian Tooley, was forced from office last year amid a scandal involving a lieutenant's son who was captured on video attacking a homeless black man. As the homeless man lay bleeding on the ground, police officers reportedly drove his attacker from the scene. The lieutenant's son, Justin Collison, 21, was not arrested at the time. A month later he turned himself in after video surfaced on Youtube.
For years the local NAACP and others have claimed that the police protected their own and routinely harassed and embarrassed blacks. And in the last few years, some Sanford officers have displayed questionable behavior: a couple have been arrested for taking bribes and kickbacks, and one was fired last summer for falsely accusing a suspect of attempted murder. In one case, the NAACP said that an officer had refused to investigate the rape of a black woman until the organization put pressure on the department.
At a town hall meeting on Wednesday, dozens of citizens told stories of humiliation or hurt they say was done by Sanford Police. Some told of lackluster murder investigations, of being physically assaulted or of being stopped and profiled because of their race. Jealous referred to the Sanford Police Department as an agency that "has gone a bit rogue."
"This really speaks to why we need DOJ here. What we've heard from citizen after citizen is that there are serious problems that go way beyond this case," Jealous said. "We need justice for Trayvon Martin, but we also need justice to work here in Sanford."
Jealous said that the NAACP plans to hold more hearings in the coming weeks to gather such stories. The statements will then be compiled in a report and delivered to federal investigators.
In the year since Chief Lee took over the department, some in the community said things were just beginning to change.
Lee told the Orlando Sentinel in June that "I hope to focus on developing partnerships with the community and continuing what they've started in their efforts of community policing: working in areas that will enable an officer to get to know the community he's working in; who in that community is not supposed to be there; work together with the community to identify problems."
The department has been criticized for several aspects of the Martin investigation.
Martin, 17, was headed back to the home of his father's girlfriend shortly after 6 p.m. on Feb. 26 after a trip to the convenience store. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch member, reported Martin to the police and told the 911 dispatcher that the teenager looked "suspicious." Zimmerman was told by the dispatcher not to follow Martin, but a few minutes after the police call, Martin lay dead from a gunshot to the chest. Zimmerman admitted to police that he shot Martin, but claimed he acted in self-defense; he has not been arrested or charged.
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, but Zimmerman was not. Police failed to check cellphone records for Martin and Zimmerman after the shooting, according to a lawyer for Martin's family. 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.
The case has garnered national attention, with protests and rallies around the country calling for the shooting to be investigated and for Zimmerman to be prosecuted.
This article has been updated to include comments from local and nation NAACP leaders and from Sanford's mayor.