8:31 AM on 03/23/2012
SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — Before the charges that police botched the investigation of the shooting of an unarmed black teen, there were complaints that police went easy on an officer’s son who beat a black homeless man, or that police pull over black kids for wearing the wrong color hat because they suspect gang associations.
The furor over the failure to charge a neighborhood watch captain for shooting Trayvon Martin to death is the latest episode to inflame racial tensions that have simmered between police and blacks in this Orlando suburb for years.
“There is no trust,” said Turner Clayton Jr., president of the Seminole County’s NAACP. “There is no confidence.”
Clayton spoke before Sanford’s police chief and a local prosecutor stepped aside Thursday. The chief was accused by critics of mishandling the investigation of 17-year-old Martin’s death.
“I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to a city which has been in turmoil for several weeks,” Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. said.
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights probe and a special prosecutor appointed by the governor is examining the February shooting by watch captain George Zimmerman, 28. Police questioned but never charged Zimmerman after the Feb. 26 shooting of the teen who had gone to a convenience store for Skittles and an iced tea.
The failure to arrest Zimmerman — who said he shot in self-defense after Martin attacked him — and a delay in releasing 911 calls related to the shooting outraged Sanford residents who called it the latest example of bias against blacks.
“They’re as crooked as a barrel of fishhooks,” said black resident Lula King. She told a town hall meeting this week that her teenage grandson is regularly pulled over by police officers who think he is in a gang because of the red-and-black hats he wears.
“There are two sides to every story, but they don’t get but one side,” said King, 75.
Lee said he would step aside temporarily to let passions cool, saying he had become a “distraction” in the investigation. Hours later, the prosecutor recused himself from the case. Norman Wolfinger said in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott that his departure was aimed at “toning down the rhetoric” in the case.
Residents had demanded that Lee be fired before he stepped down; afterward, protesters gathering early for a rally chanted “The chief is gone. Zimmerman is next.” Others sold T-shirts that read, “Arrest Zimmerman.” Lee has said police officers didn’t arrest Zimmerman immediately after the Feb. 26 shooting because he claimed self-defense and there was no evidence to contradict his claims. Florida’s self-defense law gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight.
Lee has been on the job for less than a year. His predecessor, Brian Tooley, retired early in wake of criticism that Sanford police dragged its feet in arresting Justin Collison on charges of knocking out a homeless black man.
It took a month for Collison, the son of a police lieutenant, to be arrested and charged in 2010 with battery, even though the attack was captured on video. Collison eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation late last year.
The department was also criticized for delaying the arrest of two security guards with close ties to the department who shot a 16-year-old teen to death in 2005. The guards were arrested several months after the shooting and were eventually cleared.
One of the two guards who shot Travares McGill was a police volunteer and the other was the son of a former police officer. Bryan Ansley and William Swofford claimed they feared for their lives when they shot the teen through a car window.
Of Sanford’s 53,000 residents, 57 percent are white and 30 percent are black.
Some residents have proposed boycotting the Sanford Police Department by asking 911 dispatchers to send county sheriff’s officers rather than the Sanford police.
And Martin’s family said the resignations don’t’ go nearly far enough. They repeated demands Thursday that Zimmerman be charged.
“We want an arrest, we want a conviction and we want him sentenced for the murder of my son,” Martin’s father, Tracy, said.
Associated Press writer Kyle Hightower contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.