Bill Lee temporarily stepped down Thursday as police chief of Sanford, Fla., in the wake of complaints about how he handled the case of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch officer.
At a televised news conference, Lee announced that he was stepping aside because his leadership has become a distraction and had overshadowed the events of Feb. 26, when Martin, 17, was shot by George Zimmerman.
“As a former homicide investigator, a career law enforcement officer and a father, I am keenly aware of the emotions associated with this tragic death of a child,” said Lee, who took the top police spot in May after his predecessor was pushed out because of another racially charged scandal. “I am also aware that my role as the leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation.”
Lee said he had decided to “temporarily relieve myself as police chief. ... I do this in the hope of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks,” he said.
Neither Lee nor city manager Norton N. Bonaparte Jr., who also attended the brief news conference, explained what temporary meant. Neither man took questions after the announcement.
Lee’s move came hours before demonstrators were expected to again take to the streets to protest the shooting of Martin last month. It also came less than a day after city commissioners expressed their lack of confidence in Lee’s leadership by a 3-2 vote.
Martin, who was unarmed, was returning to his father’s house when there was a confrontation with Zimmerman, who claims he shot the teenager in self-defense. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged in the incident, which is expected to be examined by a state grand jury next month.
Martin’s family, supported by local and national civil rights activists, have questioned why Zimmerman was not arrested. Police said they were barred from making an arrest because of Zimmerman’s statements, claiming self-defense.
As he has in the past, Lee on Thursday again defended the decision to release Zimmerman, described by his family as a Latino. Police have said they had to release Zimmerman in part because of the state’s stand-your-ground law, which sets guidelines about the using deadly force in self-defense.
In addition to the state investigation, federal officials are examining whether the slaying is a hate crime.
Susman reported from Sanford, Fla., and Muskal from Los Angeles.