The fate of Sanford’s police chief appears to be in a state of suspended animation, with the old chief still collecting a paycheck, and his interim replacement about to take the helm.
Chief Bill Lee Jr. stepped aside temporarily in March, and came to an agreement this month with the city manager, Norton Bonaparte, to make his departure permanent. But after the city council rejected the deal, Lee remains on leave, pending the results of an investigation that a majority of commissioners want to see completed before Mr. Bonaparte makes a decision.
But, as Bonaparte acknowledged in an interview with theGrio on Tuesday, no such investigation is currently under way, either at the local or federal level.
Despite Bonaparte telling the commission that he is awaiting the results of an outside investigation into the Sanford police department and its handling of the Trayvon Martin killing — a probe that he said during the April 23rd special meeting could take “three to four months” — the feds have yet to begin such a probe, though Bonaparte said he and Sanford mayor Jeff Triplett requested one during a March meeting in Washington with Rep. Corinne Brown and other black lawmakers, as well as a U.S. Justice Department official, Assistant Attorney general for Civil Rights Thomas Perez.
“We wanted to know, from the Justice Department’s perspective, if the police department did things they should not have done, or did not do things they should have done” in the Martin investigation, Bonaparte said. “Based upon that, it would give me the information to determine the outcome of Chief Lee.”
Bonaparte followed up the verbal request with an April 17 letter to the Department of Justice’s Police Misconduct Pattern or Practice Program, addressed to the division’s director, Roy Austin.
In his request, Bonaparte asked the department to review the Trayvon Martin case to determine if Martin’s civil rights were violated, to review the department overall for any “pattern and practice of discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex, and to take any appropriate action if federal laws were violated. Bonaparte also requested that the department issue a report with findings and “best practices” to recommend to the Sanford police department, going forward.
Bonaparte said the Justice Department has acknowledged receipt of his formal request and he is awaiting their response. However, there is no guarantee that the department, which receives thousands of similar requests each year, will agree to review Sanford’s police department.
Bonaparte said he last followed up with the Justice Department with a phone call “two to three days ago.”
The fact that no review is currently taking place seems to contradict the stance taken by Sanford commissioners, who last week rejected a severance package Bonaparte negotiated with Bill Lee, with a majority saying they preferred to await the outcome of an outside review Bonaparte said could take “several months.”
Bonaparte now says that was simply an estimate, and not a confirmation that a review was currently taking place.
“We are certainly hopeful” that Justice will respond, Bonaparte said, citing public statements by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that “he would like to have this looked into,” as a good sign that a review could happen.
In the meantime, Bonaparte said there is no time frame for the disposition of Lee’s leave of absence, which Bonaparte acknowledged is essentially indefinite. The means the city will be paying, in essence, two chiefs of police, each at a salary of around $10,000 per month, having returned the acting chief, Captain Darren Scott, to his regular duties.
And Bonaparte has selected an interim chief, Richard Myers, who has 35 years of law enforcement experience, and has been police chief in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan, though his last stint as chief of the Colorado Springs police department ended in 2011, after nearly five years, amid media speculation over whether he was forced out by the incoming mayor of that city. Colorado Springs’ police department had been under a microscope amid several scandals, and the city’s newly elected mayor, Steve Bach, reportedly asked Myers to step aside, without consulting the city council.
Bonaparte said he was aware of the news stories regarding Myers’ exit from his position in Colorado Springs and said they didn’t affect his decision to bring Myers to Sanford.
He also said that he has asked Myers to conduct his own internal review of the department.
Commissioner Velma Williams, the city’s lone black commissioner, said she was aware of the fact that no actual independent review is under way, and said she has repeatedly expressed her concern to Bonaparte.
“That really concerned me, because we don’t know how long that would take. We don’t know whether the Justice Department will be concerning themselves with things other than civil rights. And I want a thorough assessment of the police department,” Williams said.
“As a matter of fact, when the city manager first came in” to her office, just under a year ago, Williams said, Bonaparte “talked with each of the commissioners about their concerns and their goals. And at that time, before the Trayvon Martin case ever occurred, I expressed to him that I didn’t think we would be able to move forward in a real way unless an independent firm came in” to review the police department. “In my first two years [as commissioner], we had to do that, and that firm indicated that we had a dysfunctional police department.”
Williams described what she called a “cancer” within the city’s police force, which she said “came out of remission” during the final years under the previous police chief, Brian Tooley, who Williams said moved the department “in the right direction” during his first six years. Tooley was forced to retire a month early in January 2011, following a scandal involving a police lieutenant’s son who beat a homeless African-American man, Sherman Ware.
Lee was brought in with the mandate of turning the department around. But Williams believes that the Trayvon Martin incident indicates he would not succeed.
“I don’t need an independent study to know that Chief Lee will not be able to gain the trust of the people in the community,” Williams said, indicating that she was referring to “not all … but most black” and some white residents.
“I think Billy Lee is a good guy,” Williams said, “That’s not my question. [But] I felt he was in over his head when we first hired him.”
Commissioner Patty Mahany, a staunch Lee supporter whose district includes the Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Trayvon Martin was killed, sees things differently.
She too was aware that no Justice Department investigation has begun, but she believes that as the George Zimmerman trial moves toward the discovery phase, and more information is released, an investigation, whether by a federal or state agency, can proceed.
“First of all, I think we’re looking to more than one agency and more than one opinion,” Mahany said. “And I think that primarily, we are waiting to hear if the Department of Justice is going to become involved.”
If not, Mahany said the city could look to state entities to review the department, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, special prosecutor Angela Corey, whose office is trying the Zimmerman case, or the Seminole County state attorney, Norman Wolfinger.
For now, Mahany said, “I am going to lean heavily on the opinion of the interim police chief.”
Commissioner Mark McCarty, one of three commissioners who voted “no confidence” in Lee in March, said he has fiscal concerns over the city paying two police chiefs, but he said his greater concern, is “about what Chief Lee thinks. Does he think he can come back and run the Sanford police department after all that’s transpired?”
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