SANFORD, Fla. (CBSMiami) – In a 3-2 vote Wednesday night, the Sanford City Council said they have no confidence in the city’s police chief, Bill Lee.
Chief Lee had been on the job just 10 months before the Trayvon Martin murder and investigation began to come apart. Lee originally said the shooter, George Zimmerman, had no criminal record, even though he had been arrested before, but beat the charges.
Wednesday’s action came during an emergency meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the thousands of people headed to the city for rallies Thursday. It also comes amidst growing pressure on the local and national level for Lee to step down.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous joined local NAACP leaders at an open forum to hear local residents offer testimony on alleged abuses and discrimination by the Sanford Police Department.
“It hurts me,” said April Bonilla. “It hurts me that the young kids are scared to go anywhere.”
“For you to be riding down the street and police to throw stop sticks underneath your car and tell you that, ‘Oh, I thought you were somebody else,’ I could have been Trayvon Martin. I could have been dead,” said Sanford resident Myronette Boynton.
Mayor Jeff Triplett said he voted against the chief over his management and “communication,” according to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald. Sanford city manager Norton Bonaparte, Jr. said he would wait for an independent investigation before making a decision on the chief, the Herald reported.
Jealous of the NAACP said he doesn’t believe the immense pressure building around the case will explode.
“If it hasn’t bubbled over, and it’s been a month after, my faith is that the people of this community will keep pushing for justice,” Jealous said.
Children in Sanford expressed their concern over their own safety in the city after the shooting.
“People like that can be scary and they can hurt you really bad,” said Brian Bonilla.
The NAACP plans to submit this testimony to the Department of Justice, which is investigating the shooting.
But even with the calls for action growing, some people still defended Zimmerman.
“George never came to any HOA meeting dressed up in camouflage,” said Zimmerman’s friend Frank Taaffe. “He was Bernard going on subways looking for black males with screw drivers.”
Taafee said he believed Zimmerman’s story that the shooting was self-defense. He said Zimmerman should have pursued Martin like he did because “he just wanted to know what’s up, who you are, what is going on man?”
The NAACP meeting followed an earlier rally Wednesday demanding that George Zimmerman’s concealed weapons permit be revoked. Zimmerman is the neighborhood watch volunteer who claims he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense on February 26.
Local pastors and members of the Florida Civil Rights Association gathered outside the Florida Division of Licensing in Orlando.
“The public believes that Mr. Zimmerman is not fit to maintain his license because he has demonstrated to be a clear threat to public safety,” said J. Willie David III, president of the FCRA. “We are demanding Zimmerman’s gun permit be suspended and immediately seized by the state.”
Zimmerman has not been charged in the shooting.
Trayvon, an unarmed Miami Gardens teen, was killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch volunteer while walking through a Sanford gated community, returning from a candy run to a 7-Eleven. The volunteer, George Zimmerman, 28, said he acted in self-defense after Martin attacked him.
The fact that Zimmerman has not been arrested has set off a firestorm of criticism.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it is sending its community relations service this week to Sanford to “address tension in the community.”
Earlier in the week, the federal agency opened a civil rights probe into the shooting, and in Florida, Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.
Former federal prosecutors said there are limitations to a Justice Department civil rights probe, which typically would involve a sworn law enforcement officer accused of abusing his authority.
In this case, they said, it’s not clear whether Zimmerman had any actual law enforcement authority or if the Sanford Police Department did anything improper. Zimmerman had a permit to carry a gun, but it was not required for his neighborhood watch patrol.
“I think the community has the feeling that there’s some type of cover-up,” said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S. attorney in Miami. “At least the department’s involvement makes sure it gets some review. He wasn’t a police officer. I’m sure that this is going to be a tough case to prosecute.”
An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zimmerman had drawn more than 800,000 signatures at the website Change.org as of Wednesday afternoon.
Another large rally, organized by community activist and Rev. Al Sharpton, is planned Thursday at the First Shiloh Baptist Church at 7:00 p.m. in Sanford.
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