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Sanford officials reject resignation of police chief in Trayvon Martin case

Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 10:18 a.m. CST

ORLANDO, Fla. (MCT) — A decision by the Sanford City Commission on Monday to reject the resignation of embattled Police Chief Bill Lee — just a month after it voted “no confidence” in him — left critics of the police department’s handling of the Trayvon Martin shooting disappointed and angry.

Lee offered his resignation to City Manager Norton Bonaparte just hours before a City Commission meeting Monday afternoon. Bonaparte told commissioners that the resignation of the chief, who last month stepped aside temporarily, would help the city “move forward” after weeks of racial tension and heated rallies.

But by a 3-2 vote, the commission decided not to accept Lee’s resignation, which would have included severance pay. Mayor Jeff Triplett, who in March had voted with the majority in expressing “no confidence” in Lee, said he wanted to wait for the city to complete an internal review of the way the police department investigated the fatal shooting of the 17-year-old Martin.

“Is this something that can wait?” Triplett asked Bonaparte. “I’m not ready to have him (Lee) come back and run the police department yet. But I’m not ready for this, either. I’d rather wait for the investigation.”

Triplett was joined by Commissioners Patty Mahany and Randy Jones in rejecting Lee’s resignation.

“I just don’t agree with this at all,” said Oscar Redden, a Sanford resident who has strongly criticized Lee and the police department for not quickly arresting shooter George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense. “I don’t want to see him come back. And I don’t think he’s going to come back. This just delays things.”

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed Martin in a Sanford gated community Feb. 26, was later charged by a special prosecutor with second-degree murder. He was released early Monday from the Seminole County Jail on $150,000 bail.

Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon’s family, described the vote as a step in the wrong direction.

“Sanford residents deserve quality leadership in law enforcement who will handle investigations fairly for all people,” Crump said. “If Chief Bill Lee recognized that his resignation would help start the healing process in Sanford, city leadership should have accepted it in an effort to move the city forward.”

Allie Braswell, president and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, also said he was disappointed in the city commission’s move. Lee’s departure would help Sanford repair its image, he said.

“I thought it would have been a move in the right direction.”

Lee did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment Monday. He was hired as police chief in April 2011 at a salary of $102,000 and remains on paid leave.

Commissioners Velma Williams and Mark McCarty voted to accept Lee’s resignation.

“I don’t think the healing process can begin until he’s gone,” Williams said. “I think this just delays the inevitable.”

Bonaparte told commissioners that he heavily weighed the commission’s no-confidence vote and felt there would be “no healing” unless Lee resigned. He said that he and Lee agreed to a separation agreement of up to four months’ severance pay, subject to the commission’s approval.

Bonaparte would not comment further on his role in Lee’s resignation. But Commissioner Mahany said that Lee felt he had no choice. “The chief did not want to resign but felt he had to,” she said. “This was basically forced.”

Mahany, who during the meeting spoke passionately in support of Lee, called him “the chief that would take a bullet for everyone in this room. I am just devastated by this.”

About three dozen people wearing white shirts reading “We support Bill Lee” came to the commission meeting. Among them was CJ Blancett, a former police investigator and founder of United Sanford Alliance, a group that has rallied to reinstate Lee. “This was the right move by the commission,” she said.

The city said Capt. Darren Scott, who was appointed acting chief after Lee stepped aside, will remain in his current role while Sanford searches for an interim chief. Bonaparte told commissioners Monday that he expects to hire an interim chief from outside the department by next week.

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(Walter Pacheco of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.)

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