The Sanford City Commission voted 3-2 that it had no confidence in Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. over his handling of the Trayvon Martin shooting Wednesday.
Velma Williams, the city’s only black commissioner, said she spent 15 years trying to bring together the black community and white community, and the Martin episode has taken an emotional toll.
“And now this. It’s a national embarrassment," she said.
Commissioners Patty Mahany and Randy Jones supported the police chief, who came on the job last May.
"I would not want to see someone tried in the court of public opinion without all the facts," Jones said.
Mayor Jeff Triplett sounded a similar theme, though he voted against Lee. "We only have a very small piece of the puzzle right now," he said.
Commissioners cannot fire Lee, as he reports to City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr.
Williams implied that if Bonaparte doesn't fire Lee, she would review his contract the next time it comes up for renewal.
She nearly fainted after the vote because she became so emotional, and had to be treated by a paramedic.
Residents then took to the podium to say their piece.
"So what does this vote of no confidence mean?" Oscar Reden Jr. asked. "It means that that man right there ... Bonaparte, has to make a choice. You got to make a choice. He works for you!"
Bonaparte said he will take the commissioners' "strong statement" under advisement, according to the Orlando Sentinel, and said he wants to wait for the Department of Justice and the Brevard-Seminole State Attorney's Office to finish their investigations before he acts.
Lee and his department have come under withering criticism for not arresting and charging George Zimmerman in the Feb. 26 incident.
The man who fatally shot Miami Gardens teen Martin was not arrested the night of the incident because his self-defense claim “was supported by physical evidence and testimony,” according to Lee.
Police were thus prohibited from arresting Zimmerman, 28, “based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time,” Lee said, as he answered six questions about the case in a statement that was posted on the city's website.
Bonaparte released his statement in response to media attention and “a flood of questions and strong emotions from within our community, the region and nation” about Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin, Bonaparte said.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot Martin during a confrontation in a gated community in Sanford on Feb. 26. Martin was returning from a 7-Eleven to his father’s girlfriend’s home at The Retreat at Twin Lakes when the shooting happened.
In his explanation, Lee referred to the “stand your ground” provisions of state law. They say that Floridians have the right “to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force" if they feel threatened. Lee pointed to a part of the statute that says “the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.”
Lee said that Zimmerman has a concealed weapon permit, so he was authorized and legally able to carry the gun he used to shoot Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer.
Sanford's neighborhood watch handbook, which is also posted on the city's site, says that program participants' main role is to "observe and report suspicious activities" happening in their neighborhood to police.
"What you will not do is get physically involved with any activity you report or apprehension of any suspicious persons. This is the job of the law enforcement agency," it says in bold.
On another page that spells out watch members' responsibilities, the handbook says, "Remember always that your responsibility is to report crime. Do not take any risks to prevent a crime or try to make an arrest. The responsibility for apprehending criminals belongs to the police department."
Zimmerman did not follow those instructions, according to police and Martin's family members and attorneys. Instead, he followed Martin on that night, disregarding a dispatcher's statement that "you don't need to do that," Lee said.
But that suggestion was "not a lawful order that Mr. Zimmerman would be required to follow," Lee said.
Martin's final phone call with his girlfriend painted a starker picture, according to Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump.
He said that Martin got caught in the rain, put on his hoodie and was running to take cover, and then noticed, as he told his girlfriend, that "this dude is following me."
She told him to be careful and run home, and he momentarily lost Zimmerman. But then he told her that Zimmerman was right behind him again, and she told him to run, Crump said.
"He says 'I'm not gonna run, I'm just gonna walk fast,'" Crump said.
The fatal confrontation that ended Martin's life happened moments later.