SANFORD, Fla. — 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.