Sanford, Fla. Police Chief To 'Step Aside'

Mar 22, 2012

Transcript

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Sanford, Florida, the police chief at the center of a controversial killing says he is temporarily stepping down. Chief Bill Lee says he has become a distraction in the case.

Late last month, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, was shot to death. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, claimed self-defense in the shooting. He has not been arrested or charged. The police chief's announcement today follows weeks of public outcry over the officers' handling of the shooting.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports from Sanford.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: After a vote of no confidence last night from city commissioners and the mayor, Chief Bill Lee said he realized his presence had become a distraction from the investigation and that he would temporarily remove himself from office.

BILL LEE: I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks.

LOHR: Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, Jr., appeared at the podium with Lee.

NORTON BONAPARTE JR.: This is a very difficult time for this community. It's a very difficult time for our nation. This incident has gathered international attention. What the city of Sanford wants more than anything else for the Trayvon Martin family is justice.

LOHR: Trayvon's parents spoke before a rally tonight. His dad Tracy Martin says he's not satisfied with the police chief's temporary removal. He says the family wants an arrest and a conviction. The shooting death of Trayvon has roiled Sanford and the nation. The teen was returning home from a trip to a convenience store. Zimmerman spotted him, called 911 and described him as suspicious. After a confrontation between the two, Trayvon was dead.

There has been a huge public outcry over this case and many say there are too many questions about how the investigation was conducted and questions remain about what actually happened. While many think Zimmerman was at fault, last night, City Commissioner Patty Mahany disagreed. For instance, someone is screaming in the 911 calls. Some here think it's Trayvon, but Mahany says the teen was the aggressor.

COMMISSIONER PATTY MAHANEY: The limited knowledge that I have of the case is that the police department - the Sanford Police - is confident that it is not Trayvon Martin's voice crying for help on the tape, that it's George Zimmerman.

LOHR: The city has not released all the details, but has posted some documents on its website. The city manager says he has asked for an independent review of the investigation and the police have turned over their evidence to the state.

Some lingering questions. Did police take a full statement from Zimmerman on the night of the shooting? Did they follow up with witnesses? Why didn't investigators find Trayvon's cell phone and search his calls? It was the teen's father who brought the calls to the attention of police and identified a witness who said she was talking to Trayvon at the time of the shooting when the unarmed teen was walking home from a convenience store.

Andrew Scott is a former police chief of Boca Raton, Florida and now has a police consulting firm.

ANDREW SCOTT: There are some questions that persist relative to the investigation. And clearly, that's something that needs to be looked at and to see if, indeed, there were major mistakes made during the course of the initial phases of the investigation.

LOHR: He wonders why the city did not ask for the state's help right away and he says it's troubling that the chief has released conflicting statements about this case. But Scott says Zimmerman has a right to due process. He doesn't think police should have arrested the volunteer neighborhood watch captain without the evidence to back it up.

SCOTT: Would it have made a difference to arrest Mr. Zimmerman the night of the incident or after the grand jury sees the evidence and hands down its true bill or no true bill, that's part of our democratic process.

LOHR: A grand jury is expected to hear the case next month, but it's difficult for the family, residents and civil rights leaders to wait. The shooting took place nearly a month ago.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Sanford, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.