Sanford officials have selected a new interim police chief following several shakeups in the department in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Norton Bonaparte, the city manager, picked Richard Myers, a former chief of police in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Appleton, Wisc., to be the town's new top cop.
The city has been trying to find a replacement for Chief Bill Lee, who has stepped down temporarily after he came under withering criticism for his department's handling of the initial investigation into Martin's killing. The day before he stepped aside, Lee had received a "no confidence" vote from the city commission.
"I am aware that my role as the head of the department has become a distraction," Lee said at a hastily called press conference on March 22. "I have come to the decision to temporarily remove myself."
Last week, Lee submitted a letter of resignation, but the city commission rejected it.
"The city commission spoke," Bonaparte said at the time. "They were not ready to have the resignation. So we'll move forward."
Since Lee stepped down, the city's police force has been helmed by Capt. Darren Scott.
Martin, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed as he walked to the home of his father's girlfriend on Feb. 26. His shooter, George Zimmerman, was a neighborhood watch volunteer who got into an altercation with the teenager after he told a 911 dispatcher that Martin, who was unarmed, looked "suspicious." The police initially declined to charge or arrest Zimmerman, which sparked protests and rallies around the country and made the case a flashpoint in the national debate around racial profiling and gun control.
Myers' hiring comes amid growing tension between the department and city government, as officers and city officials have complained that Lee has been unfairly treated.
According to one city official, nearly 40 police officers met privately with the mayor and the city commission to voice their anger over the decision to force Lee from the department. Velma Williams, the city's lone black commissioner, characterized the tone of the meeting as rancorous.
"They disrespected me and they disrespected the mayor," she said.
Community leaders and many black residents said that Bonaparte jeopardized his political future by dragging his feet in making a decision on Lee's fate early on. While the police chief serves at the pleasure of the city manager, the city manager serves at the pleasure of the city commission.
"His stubbornness could cost him his job," Turner Clayton, the president of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P. recently told HuffPost.
"There are still some questions," Williams said of Bonaparte's decision not to fire Lee.
Over the last several weeks, Bonaparte had brokered a separation agreement with Lee that would dissolve the relationship between him and the city; that agreement was part of Lee's resignation letter. But the five-member city commission rejected Lee's resignation in a 3-to-2 vote, reversing its earlier vote of "no confidence."
On the board Mayor Jeff Triplett was the lone reversal from the earlier 3-to-2 "no confidence" vote, saying during the meeting that while he didn't think Lee should return to his post, he believed details of the separation agreement needed to be tweaked.
"I'm still a little perplexed about that first paragraph to be honest," Triplett said of Lee's resignation letter. The mayor said that he voted not to accept Lee's resignation because he would like to see an independent, third-party review of the police department, which has yet to happen.
"I've said all along that there are some things I like about Chief Lee and some things I didn't like about the way he handled the crisis," Triplett said.
Williams said the April 23 vote was called moments after the group received the letter.
"When we arrived there at 4 o'clock, none of us had seen the letter of resignation," Williams said.
Williams, who voted to accept Lee's resignation, said that she voted on it sight unseen and didn't read it until she arrived home later that night. But had she read it at the meeting, she said, "I wouldn't have voted in support of Lee, but I would have said, 'There's no way that I can vote one way or another on this particular letter of resignation.'"
She said that when she and the other commissioners finally did read through Lee's letter, red flags started going up. Among them, the letter seems to imply that Lee is being forced out and stipulates that he has violated no laws and that he would willingly return to his position if asked to do so.
Excerpts from Chief Lee's resignation letter read in part:
It was an honor to be selected to serve the City of Sanford as its Chief of Police. Since taking the position, it is clear that while working with the men and women of the Sanford Police Department, we have moved the organization toward becoming a more effective and professional organization capable of providing a higher level of service to our community. Through this process, I have seen an increase in the morale of the men and women at the Department.
I have followed the law and acceptable law enforcement practices in performing my duties and responsibilities and have not taken any action or engaged in any conduct that would adversely impact the men and women of the Police Department, who so diligently and bravely serve the citizens of Sanford. I am willing, ready and able to continue to perform the duties of Chief of Police for the City of Sanford and have not been found to have committed any wrongdoing. However, in response to the City Manager's suggestion that I resign from my position and solely to allow the city to move beyond recent events, I have decided that I can no longer serve as Police Chief.
Williams said of the letter, "You don't say in your letter of resignation that they are forcing you out. Once people read it, people were in awe about what was in there, wondering, 'What kind of resignation is that?'"
Lee came into office little more than a year ago on promises to make changes in the department to mend its relationship with the black community, as some there claim a string of incidents tinged with race and violence were not zealously investigated because the victims were black.
As public outcry reached a fever pitch in the wake of Martin's killing, city officials grew increasingly divided -- particularly the city commission -- over whether or not Chief Lee should be fired and the extent to which the Martin case has been mishandled.
"One of the biggest divides is, this guy [Chief Lee] has been here 10 months. Is this a problem that can be solved in 10 months?" said Triplett. "It's the wound that's been sitting in our community for a long time. The scab has been pulled off of it, and a lot of deeper feelings have been exposed."
Triplett said part of moving forward was to select a police chief from outside of the community.
"Chief Lee is a community guy. He's been here all of his life, and a lot of our officers have been there most of their lives. I think it's important for someone without intimate knowledge of the police force and the inner workings to come in with no pre-ordained thoughts on what he's getting himself into," Triplett said.
Yet Myers comes to Sanford's beleaguered police department with baggage of his own.
According to reports, Myers was forced out of the Colorado Springs police department in 2011 upon news of two scandals there, one of which involved an officer arrested for molesting children and another in which an officer lied to get an ex-boyfriend arrested.
Some Colorado Springs residents have lambasted the department as corrupt and called for civilian oversight. The city's mayor at the time said that he wanted to "change direction."
"When Mayor [Steve] Bach was elected, I told him I was here to serve and would do so loyally and do my best to lead the department in the direction he wanted to take the City, until such time that he felt he needed to bring in his own chief," Myers said in a statement released in October of last year. "Recently, he informed me he is ready to make a change in direction, and he is continuing to methodically create his own management team.”
Myers retired from the department in November.
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