The city commission in Sanford, Florida, has rejected the resignation of the police chief who had stepped aside amid criticism over his department’s investigation into the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Bill Lee, who has been on leave since his temporary resignation was announced on March 22, was set to resign permanently on Monday under a separation agreement submitted to him by Norton Bonaparte, the Sanford city manager .
But the five-member commission governing the city voted 3-2 against the agreement in a special meeting later on Monday, adding further disarray in the city of 50,000 that has been the centre of national attention over the racially charged case.
“In light of the vote, Chief Lee will remain on paid administrative leave while an investigation continues into the handling of the Trayvon Martin case by the Sanford Police Department,” Bonaparte said in a statement.
Captain Darren Scott will remain as acting police chief.
George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, 17, in a gated community in Sanford on February 26, in an incident that triggered civil rights protests nationwide and fired a national debate over guns, self-defence laws and race.
Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defence after a confrontation that occurred as Martin was returning to his father’s house in the community after buying sweets from a convenience store.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe they are in danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm.
The lack of an arrest led thousands to march in protest rallies in Sanford and across the country, calling for Zimmerman’s arrest and “justice” for Martin.
The public outrage caused the Sanford police chief and regularly assigned prosecutor to step aside.
Although the city manager – not the commission – normally has the power to fire the police chief, this particular separation agreement required commission approval, the city said.
The commission had voted “no confidence” in Lee by a 3-2 margin on March 21, leading to his temporary resignation the next day. But Mayor Jeff Triplett, who voted against the chief at the time, voted against his resignation on Monday.
“Obviously my questions will be the effectiveness that will be still out there, if he can be effective,” Triplett, who had
said he was not ready to seal the chief’s depature, said after the vote.
Citizens packed the city commission chamber with many people showing support for Lee. One man carried a sign saying “Bring back Billy.”
City Commissioner Patty Mahany opposed forcing Lee out, saying the city manager was influenced by the public
demonstrations, which drew thousands of activists from outside of Sanford to the city.
The regularly assigned prosecutor removed himself from the case the same day Lee stepped aside, and a special prosecutor later charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder on April 11.
Zimmerman was released on $150,000 bail early on Monday.