The Sanford police chief who failed to arrest George Zimmerman immediately after the fatal shooting of Miami-Dade teen Trayvon Martin four months ago — and brought national attention and derision to the Central Florida city — has been terminated.
The announcement was made late Wednesday night by Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who said in a news release that Police Chief Bill Lee “has been relieved of his duties” effective immediately. The chief had been on paid leave.
Bonaparte implied the firing stemmed from the impact of Lee’s handling of the Trayvon Martin on the city of Sanford.
“I have come to this decision in light of the escalating divisiveness that has taken hold of the city,” the manager said in the statement. The decision was made after a meeting earlier in the day.
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The shooting of the 17-year-old that has sparked national outrage also has painted Sanford in an unfavorable light across the country.
“After much thoughtful discussion and deep consideration for the issues facing the city of Sanford, 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 the statement. “We need to move forward with a police chief that all the citizens of Sanford can support.”
A nationwide search will begin for a replacement.
According to Lee’s employment agreement, he will receive a severance of three months and one week’s salary, in addition to any earned time off.
“I wish Chief Lee all the best in his future endeavors,” Bonaparte said.
In a text message to The Miami Herald late Wednesday, Ben Crump, attorney for the Martin family, commented on Lee’s firing.
“It’s our understanding that Sanford’s elected leadership felt that it was in the best interest to discharge Chief Lee in order to move on and rebuild community trust. We agree and stand by that decision and will do whatever we can to cooperate with any pending internal investigations of the PD and in helping the city of Sanford through this purging and healing process,’’ Crump wrote.
Richard Myers, former police chief of Colorado Springs, assumed the duties of interim police chief in May after Lee stepped aside temporarily. Lee had taken the $102,000-a-year job after a 27-year career at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office.
In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, Lee became a lightning rod for the anger that spread across the country after the incident on Feb. 26.
Trayvon, of Miami Gardens, was visiting his father’s girlfriend in Sanford while on a 10-day suspension from a Miami-Dade high school.
Zimmerman was ultimately charged by a special prosecutor and faces a charge of second-degree murder.
Lee’s 10-month tenure as police chief of Sanford’s 140-officer department looked like it was near an end when he submitted his resignation in March because of the backlash over the lack of an arrest.
Activists, students and ardent supporters across Florida and the country held rallies and marches to push for Zimmerman’s arrest, They included more than 1,000 Miami-Dade high school students. In protest, they wore hoodies and carried Skittles candy, as Trayvon had in his final moments. The Rev. Al Sharpton held a rally with thousands of supporters in Sanford.
In a press conference in March after Lee agreed to remove himself, he said:
“While I stand by the Sanford Police Department, its personnel and the investigation that was conducted in regards to the Trayvon Martin case, it is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process,” Lee said . “I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks.”
Pressure for his resignation also had come from within the Sanford government. The Sanford City Commission issued a 3-2 vote of no confidence against Lee in March, and Bonaparte said at the time that Lee needed to be let go in order to let the city “move forward.”
But his resignation was refused in April by the Sanford City Commission, which said Lee’s spotless record showed there needed to be further review to determine if he failed in his duties. The key message of the meeting was that the commission wanted to wait for an outside agency to review the situation.
Miami Herald staff writers Frances Robles and David Ovalle contributed to this report.