Blacks say history of bias against them in FL city

Associated Press
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee speaks to the the media during a news conference Thursday, March 22, 2012 as city manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. listens at left, in Sanford Fla. Lee, who has been bitterly criticized for not arresting a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, announced that he is temporarily stepping down to let passions cool. (AP Photo/Julie Fletcher)
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SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — Before the charges that police botched the investigation of the shooting of an unarmed black teen, there were complaints that they went easy on an officer's son who beat a black homeless man, or that officers 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. And on Thursday, the department's chief temporarily stepped aside.

Stanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. acknowledged the problems on Friday.

"The issues that have been brought to my attention regarding the black community and the Sanford police department go back 10 years," he said. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done there."

Bonaparte noted Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. took over the department less than a year ago and said he had made improvements but added, "Certainly that has changed as of right now in terms of the relationship between the black community and the Sanford police department."

Turner Clayton Jr., president of the Seminole County's NAACP, agreed.

"There is no trust," he said. "There is no confidence."

Clayton spoke before Lee 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," 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 Feb. 26 shooting by watch captain George Zimmerman, 28. Police questioned but never charged Zimmerman in the shooting of the teen who was returning to a friend's home after getting Skittles and an iced tea at a convenience store.

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 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.

Florida is among 21 states with a "Stand Your Ground Law," which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. It lets police on the scene decide whether they believe the self-defense claim. In many cases, the officers make an arrest and leave it to the courts to work out whether the deadly force is justified.

In this case, however, police have said they are confident they did the right thing by not charging Zimmerman.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law, but said Friday that he didn't think it cleared Zimmerman in Martin's shooting.

"This law does not apply to this particular circumstance," Bush said after an appearance in North Texas. "Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back."

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 because there was no evidence to contradict his assertion that the shooting was in self-defense.

Lee's predecessor, Brian Tooley, retired early when faced with 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 boy 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. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Hispanic.

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," said Martin's father, Tracy.

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Associated Press writer Kyle Hightower contributed to this report.

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