Trayvon Martin case: Did Sanford police chief Bill Lee lack the experience to lead?

theGRIO REPORT - BIll Lee holds a Master's in Public Administration for. The University of Central Florida, but his supervisory experience was scant...

When Sanford set out to find a new police chief last spring, one candidate stood out. He had stellar credentials: 24 years of law enforcement experience, including ten years of command experience as a retired deputy chief, supervising a large police force of 1,100 sworn officers and 60 civilian employees in Prince George’s County, Maryland; a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins, a record of steep crime reduction during his tenure, and a media-ready style, according to the professional search firm hired to vet the ten candidates who applied for the job and to choose five finalists.

He was also African-American, which might have helped heal a rift between police and the city’s black community that stretched back 100 years. He was almost too good to be true. And he didn’t take the job.

Neither Michael Blow, the dream candidate, nor Sonja White, a deputy police chief from Orlando, who is also African-American, and a graduate of the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, would be Sanford’s new chief. Unfortunately, though, several people privy to the selection process said their qualifications, and those of a third candidate, Robert Musco, who was already serving as a police chief in the small city of Glen Cove Springs, were, in the words of one source, “head and shoulders” above the eventual chief, Bill Lee Jr.

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Three committees reviewed the final five: a citizens committee, the five-member city commission, and a law enforcement committee. At issue for some in the black community: the law enforcement committee had no African-American members.

“Citizens raised concerns with me about that,” said Velma Williams, the lone black member of Sanford’s five-person commission, to include the Mayor, “And I told them I had concerns about it, too.”

Ultimately, Blow was offered the job, but declined, leading some in the small community to believe the offer was made “in a way that he wouldn’t accept it,” by the then interim manager, Tom George. Rumors of low-balling on the salary, or a negative impression made by the all-white law enforcement committee abound.

Blow told theGrio that while he “loved the area” of Sanford — which has a small-town, southern feel (though he worked in law enforcement in Bowie, Maryland for more than 20 years, Blow’s family originally hails from the Carolinas) — he declined because at the time, he was dealing with his mother’s illness.

“It was just a perfect storm of circumstances,” said Blow, who said he saw nothing unusual about the offer made to him.

Despite that explanation, some in Sanford are adamant that the whole selection process was a sham, and that the fix was in for Bill Lee.

Locals say Lee, George, part of Sanford’s “Good Old Boys” network

Lee — called “Billy Lee” according local people of all races who spoke about him, was associate dean of the Center for Public Safety at Seminole State College at the time he and nine others submitted applications for the chief’s position. (George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin February 26th, was a student there at the time, though there is no evidence the two ever met.)

The chief’s job became open after the former chief of 14 years, Brian Tooley was forced to retire a month early amidst a scandal over the videotaped beating of a black homeless man by Justin Collison, whose father was a Sanford police lieutenant. Sanford police declined to arrest Collison at the time, after he called his father from the scene and his father contacted an officer at the scene. When the cell phone video went viral on YouTube, police were pressured to arrest Collison, who eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

A source close to law enforcement said Lee’s name began circulating almost immediately. Lee and George both live in nearby Geneva. George, as acting city manager, was charged with hiring a chief before his own position was filled permanently.

“He met the minimum requirements,” said one participant in the selection process on background, regarding Lee’s qualifications to be Sanford’s police chief.

Lee holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration for The University of Central Florida, but his supervisory experience was scant — his department consisted of just 20 full time employees, and his department budget of $2.2 million annually was dwarfed by the one managed by Blow, at $23 million.

Hand-written notes on Lee’s application hint at potential concerns, though it’s unclear if they were made by the search firm, Waters-Oldani Executive Recruitment, or by a member of one of the committees. On the questionnaire included in the application, the word “you” is circled on the question: “what experience do you have with policing in a racially, ethnically and culturally diverse community?” — as if his answer was unclear. Lee’s answer that he has “limited experience” with collective bargaining units is underlined, as is his answer that because of his “quiet and calm” demeanor, “subordinates do not know how to perceive” him.

At the top of the application, someone penned in a note next to Lee’s name which reads: “c.m. rather than chief.” At the time, the city was also attempting to fill the city manager’s position — an important job in Sanford, where the mayor is a member of the city commission, serves part-time like the other four members, and where the manager is the one with the power to hire — or fire — the chief. Williams said no discussion of giving Lee the city manager’s job ever took place.

Residents who spoke about the chief – both black and white – did have one common impression of Lee — boiling it down to three words: “good old boy.” And the notion that the “good old boy” network is fully in force in Sanford is strong, particularly among it’s black residents. At the top of that network, several people said, is Tom George.

Phone and email left with Lee requesting comment were not returned.

Reached for comment, George, who is now the assistant city manager after being appointed last year by the new manager, Norton Bonaparte, declined to answer questions, and referred all queries to the Joint Information Center (established for the Trayvon Martin investigation by State Attorney Angela Corey).

George might have held onto the city manager’s job, had a November 2010 referendum relaxing the requirement that the manager live within the city limits not been voted down.

The residency requirement — which required the previous chief, Brian Tooley, to buy a home in Sanford in 1999 — was apparently set aside for Lee.

The idea that George put the fix in for Billy Lee may have poisoned the new chief’s tenure from the start, though Francis Oliver, a lifelong resident who runs the museum dedicated to the town’s historically black section of Goldsboro, said the black community initially welcomed the new chief.

“We tried to bond with Bill Lee,” Oliver said. She and other black residents said that didn’t last long, though. In fact, Oliver said citizens are now considering pushing for a recall of the two commissioners who pushed hardest for Lee, Patty Mahany and Randy Jones.

Lee, who stepped down temporarily more than a week ago amid widespread criticism of his police department’s handling of the Trayvon Martin case, is currently awaiting Bonaparte’s decision about whether his move will become permanent. Last week, the city commission voted 3-2 that it had no confidence in him, with the city’s mayor, Tom Triplett, voting with the majority. Commissioner Williams said citizens are pressing her and other commissioners, asking why Lee still has his job after what many consider a biased and botched investigation into the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Williams said she and other commissioners are pressing Bonaparte to make a decision.

Even in stepping aside, Lee caused a stir. On the day he announced he was standing down, Lee promoted five officers, including Steve Lynch, who was involved in a 2011 shooting of a black man in a Winn Dixie parking lot for which he was cleared, but which roiled the city’s black community, and Randy Smith, who was the sergeant on duty the night police responded to the Trayvon Martin case, but failed to make an arrest.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport