Sanford, Fla. Police Chief Bill Lee oversaw the decision not to press charges against George Zimmerman on February 26 after the neighborhood watch volunteer killed Trayvon Martin with a registered handgun. Lee’s decision sparked national outrage, leading to a widespread outcry for the arrest of Zimmerman — and the firing of Chief Lee.
Lee temporarily stepped down from his post on March 22 in response to the unrest. Now a small contingent of Sanford citizens has risen up in support of Lee, some even wearing wrist bands as part of a grassroots campaign to save his job.
Rubber bracelets with the message “I Support Chief Billy Lee” emblazoned in uppercase lettering are reportedly being worn by a segment of his advocates in the central Florida town.
These ‘I Support Chief Billy Lee’ wristbands illustrate some Sanford residents’ support. (Photo: Facebook)
A Sanford resident known only as “CJ” has told NBC News that she created and distributed the wristbands to demonstrate that the beleaguered chief still has allies. In one area of her web site, called “Support The Chief,” she states: “During this time of uncertainty and unrest, we should strive to seek answers and not just sacrifices. If you support honesty, integrity, morals AND you live your life everyday in search of the truth and not just justice, then please join myself and others in support of Chief Billy Lee, the overwhelming choice for Chief of Police of the Sanford Police Department. Thank you in advance for your openmindedness and support!”
A button on this page allows visitors to make PayPal donations in support of Lee, but the destination of the contributions is unclear.
Over 1,200 Lee backers have also signed a Change.org petition on his behalf. Similarly, the “Keep Sanford PD Chief Billy Lee” Facebook page has almost 1,000 likes.
The administrator of the Facebook page championing the chief commented on a tagged photo of two wrists bearing the bracelets with an affirming: “That is awesome!” One additional Sanford resident added a simple heart as an endorsement of the image.
On another pro-Lee site, its creator contends that, “Chief Lee has brought a unique blend of law enforcement experience, local knowledge, education and training to the City of Sanford. His background is complemented by a solid work ethic and an enthusiastic commitment to community policing and customer service that has served our citizens well.”
Yet, contrary opinions about the chief abound. At rallies and demonstrations held nationwide, Lee’s judgment in not charging Zimmerman has been strongly questioned, leading to calls for his immediate ouster.
Lee has stated that Zimmerman was not charged due to his claim that he shot in self-defense. Under Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground Law,” Zimmerman was authorized to use deadly force against what he perceived as a lethal threat. In Florida, it is the jurisdiction of the police to determine whether “Stand Your Ground” stipulations apply if invoked by an aggressor in an incident.
Numerous factors have led the public to question Lee’s application of “Stand Your Ground” as Zimmerman’s legal justification. The fact that Martin was unarmed when Zimmerman shot him is one highly-cited circumstance that casts doubt on Zimmerman’s claim that his life was endangered. This fact, combined with allegations that Lee’s department botched the related investigation due to racial bias, have created such a furor that Lee stepped down in an effort to mollify the turbulence.
With this act of appeasement, Lee defended his department’s handling of the case.
“I stand by the Sanford Police Department and its personnel,” Lee told the press about his choice to take a temporary leave of absence, adding that he hopes “to restore some semblance of calm to the city which has been in turmoil for several weeks.”
City Manager Norton Bonaparte is the only Sanford official with the authority to fire Lee. Bonaparte has told the press that he is currently looking for an interim police chief, but has announced no plans to fire Lee and will not confirm whether Lee will be reinstated.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb