City fires police chief over Trayvon Martin case

Thursday , June 21, 2012 - 10:13 AM

Martin Comas, Rene Stutzman

SANFORD, Fla. - Sanford police Chief Bill Lee, who stepped aside temporarily three months ago amid a national outcry over his department’s handling of the Trayvon Martin shooting, was fired Wednesday night.

The city announced that City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. had dismissed Lee effective immediately.

"I have determined the police chief needs to have the trust and respect of the elected officials and the confidence of the entire community," Bonaparte said in a statement. "We need to move forward with a police chief that all the citizens of Sanford can support. I have come to this decision in light of the escalating divisiveness that has taken hold of the city."

Neither Bonaparte nor Lee returned calls seeking comment Wednesday night.

City Commissioner Patty Mahany, a Lee supporter, said that she did not expect Lee’s firing.

"Mr. Bonaparte clearly stated to me on Monday that he would base his decision regarding police Chief Lee on a City Commission vote of no confidence," Mahany said. "This caught me by surprise."

Under the city charter, Bonaparte oversees the Police Department and can hire or fire the chief without City Commission approval.

Trayvon’s family and its attorneys had for months called for Lee’s dismissal. On Wednesday night, family attorney Natalie Jackson said the firing will allow the Police Department to begin rebuilding trust.



"A child died, and there was an investigation that we don’t believe was done thoroughly," Jackson said. "None of this is going to be happy."

Under the terms of Lee’s contract, he will receive a severance of three months and one week’s pay. Lee was paid $102,000 a year.

National civil-rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and NAACP President Ben Jealous, also had demanded Lee’s dismissal because his agency did not arrest George Zimmerman for shooting Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, on Feb. 26.

A special prosecutor later charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Zimmerman, who says that he acted in self-defense, is in the Seminole County Jail awaiting trial.

Lee, 52, stepped aside temporarily March 22, saying he had become a distraction, and he has been on paid administrative leave since. The night before he relinquished his duties, the Sanford City Commission had voted 3-2 that it had "no confidence" in Lee.

He tried to quit April 23, but the commission rejected his resignation. At the time, Bonaparte told commissioners that the resignation of the chief would help the city move ahead after weeks of controversy.

But by a 3-2 vote, the commission decided against accepting Lee’s resignation, which would have included severance pay.

Mayor Jeff Triplett was joined by Commissioners Patty Mahany and Randy Jones in rejecting the resignation.

Richard Myers, the former police chief in Colorado Springs, Colo., is serving as Sanford’s interim police chief. Myers, 57, vowed to be a "bridge builder" with the city’s black community. Bonaparte said Wednesday that Myers will continue in that role until the city hires a new chief with the help of a recruiting company. That process is expected to take several months.

Bonaparte had said repeatedly that he would not fire Lee, who has had the job for about a year, unless a city investigation found major flaws in the department’s handling of Trayvon’s death. There was no indication Wednesday night whether that investigation had been concluded.

In recent weeks, critics of Lee have continued to demand his firing.

During a Sanford forum put on last week by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Martin’s parents appealed to a crowd of about 100 people to press for Lee’s firing and an investigation into the Sanford Police Department.

"You can’t heal with the same people in place," said Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father. "If Chief Bill Lee is hired back, the same things are going to happen."

Wednesday night, Jackson, his attorney, wrote in an e-mail that the city had made a decision based on the best interest of its citizens.

"We will do whatever we can to cooperate with any pending internal investigations of the PD and to help the city of Sanford through this purging and healing process," she wrote.

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(Staff writers Desiree Stennett and Susan Jacobson contributed to this report.)

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)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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