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Trayvon Martin Case: Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Takes “Leave of Absence”

Bill Lee, the chief of the Sanford Police Department, which has still failed to make an arrest in the killing of Trayvon Martin, has taken a temporary leave of absence. This came a day after a no-confidence vote from the city commissioners.

Lee, stressing his credentials as a former homicide investigator, said that he stands by the police department and the investigation.

“I am aware my role as leader of this department has become a distraction from the investigation,” Lee said, adding that “temporarily removing” himself from the role would restore a “semblance of calm to the city which has been in turmoil for several weeks.”

Two captains will head the department until an interim chief can be found, according to City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. The city manager did not specify whether Lee would continue to be paid his $102,000 salary, or when he would return to his job as police chief.

The “temporary” removal means that Lee still holds on to his job, and it changes nothing about the lack of arrests in the Martin case, despite the growing evidence that the unarmed African-American teenager represented no threat to assailant George Zimmerman, and in fact felt threatened by the neighborhood watchman.

Furthermore, the city of Sanford released new evidence about George Zimmerman’s previous 911 calls which show dozens of instances where Zimmerman alerted authorities, particularly to the presence of black males in his neighborhood. Adam Weinstein writes:

But even more than cars, he was concerned about black men on foot in the neighborhood. In August 2011, he called to report a black male in a tank top and shorts acting suspicious near the development’s back entrance. “[Complainant] believes [subject] is involved in recent S-21s”—break-ins—”in the neighborhood,” the call log states. The suspect, Zimmerman told the dispatcher, fit a recent description given out by law enforcement officers.

Three days later, he called two report two black teens in the same area, for the same reason. “[Juveniles] are the subjs who have been [burglarizing] in this area,” he told the dispatcher.

And last month, on Feb. 2, Zimmerman called to report a suspicious black man in a leather jacket near one of the development’s units. The resident of that townhouse, Zimmerman told dispatch, was a white male. Police stopped by to investigate, but no one was there, and the residence was secure.

This doesn’t speak to the particular case but a pattern and practice for Zimmerman. And the Sanford Police Department, with or without Bill Lee, also has a pattern and practice, in their case of letting white assailants of black people go free. In fact, Lee was brought in to restore the PD’s public image after a series of race-related incidents. With respect to the Martin case, Lee downplayed the racial elements, stating that Zimmerman didn’t know the race of Martin (he clearly said to the 911 dispatcher “he looks black” and probably muttered a racial epithet under his breath). Also, key details about Zimmerman – claims that he showed signs of a struggle – magically appeared in a second police report, after the first one left out those details.

So while many seek justice for Trayvon Martin in the case, the conduct of the Sanford Police Department also deserves scrutiny. That’s the focus of this Daily Kos petition calling for an expanded investigation.

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David Dayen

David Dayen