Trayvon Martin shooting

Sanford police chief under fire amid Trayvon Martin case

 

Police bungled the investigation into Trayvon Martin’s case, attorneys and experts say.

frobles@MiamiHerald.com

The many missteps in the Trayvon Martin investigation that may cost this small town’s police chief his job started with semantics.

The boy’s father says police depicted George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager while on his nightly patrol, as “squeaky clean.” Then Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee told an Orlando TV station that the gunman didn’t have a criminal record — technically true: Charges in the shooter’s 2005 felony arrest, which the chief did not mention, had been dropped.

Now Chief Lee, who came on the job just 10 months ago for $102,000 a year to clean up a department tainted by racial scandals, finds himself under fire in what promises to be one of the most explosive law enforcement cases of the year. For weeks, black leaders have called for the firing of Lee, a Sanford native with a three-decade career in law enforcement whose father once ran the nearby black neighborhood’s convenience store.

In a 3-2 vote Wednesday night, the Sanford City Commission gave the chief a vote of no confidence, adding to the mounting national pressure to oust him.

What began as misunderstandings, technicalities and poor word choice mushroomed into what critics are calling a deeply flawed investigation, which is now being looked at by state and federal agencies.

“I’ve never thought the chief was a racist or anything. It’s more of a lack of experience and a lack of leadership,” said Commissioner Velma Williams, who advocated that the chief resign to quell tensions before a rally next week, timed for Monday’s city commission meeting.

Mayor Jeff Triplett told reporters afterward that he voted against the chief over his management and “communication.” City manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. told reporters that he would not make a decision about the chief’s fate until he learns from an independent law enforcement agency what mistakes police might have made. This week the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched their own investigations.

Phone records have not yet been inspected, witnesses’ calls were allegedly not returned and the criminal record of the shooter was not checked until the morning after the shooting — what experts call examples of sloppy police work that undermined the police department’s credibility and could hamper a future prosecution. Together, gaffes big and small helped foster Trayvon’s family’s belief that investigators were out to protect the accused.

“Basically, from day one, we didn’t feel that the police were doing a thorough investigation,” said Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, a Miami-Dade truck driver. “They were taking Zimmerman’s word that he didn’t murder our son.”

So many legislators, online petitioners, national civil rights leaders and even celebrities have denounced the inquiry that the city manager — the only one who can fire Lee — made the chief respond to the most frequent criticisms in writing. He posted Lee’s answers on the city’s website.

Among the allegations:

• As evidence that the incident was not a case of racial profiling, Lee told The Miami Herald that when the police dispatch operator asked Zimmerman the race of the suspicious person he saw, the Hispanic neighborhood watch captain did not know. Yet when the recording of that conversation was made public, Zimmerman clearly says, “he looks black.”

• Initial police reports never mentioned that Zimmerman had a bloody nose or a wet shirt that showed evidence of a struggle. Attorneys for the dead teen’s family believe the information was added in a second report to justify the lack of an arrest.

• Police said witness statements supported Zimmerman’s account. But several of the witnesses expressed surprise, telling The Herald that they reported hearing someone crying for help just before a shot ended the cries. The 911 tapes of witness calls bolstered their claims.

• One of the witnesses who heard the crying said she called a detective repeatedly, but said he was not interested because her account differed from Zimmerman’s.

• For nearly a month, police never noticed a profanity Zimmerman mumbled under his breath when he called police, which some people believe was accompanied by a muffled racial slur.

• Even though investigators have the dead boy’s cell phone, it was Trayvon’s father who combed through the phone records to discover that his son was talking to a girlfriend in the moments that led up to his death. Police never contacted the girl, who told lawyers that Trayvon was alarmed because he was being followed.

The department defends its investigation and says it welcomes outside oversight. In an interview last week, Lee said the query into Trayvon’s death was “color blind” and thorough.

He insisted that evidence collected at the scene and from witnesses did not provide enough probable cause to refute Zimmerman’s version that he shot Trayvon in self defense, and says it would have been against the law to arrest him.

“They are saying that things that aren’t factual, that we had admitted that we didn’t know about George Zimmerman’s criminal history, which is not true,” Lee told The Herald. “We ran his history that morning. I said, ‘He doesn’t have a criminal history, anything that prohibits him from having a concealed weapons permit — which is true. He has an arrest record, but he has not been convicted of anything.”

The “squeaky clean” quote was out of context, Lee said, and critics “are basing their opinion on what is being portrayed in the media.”

Trayvon was shot Feb. 26 while walking home from a store where he bought Skittles and Arizona iced tea. Zimmerman called police about seeing a “suspicious person,” and was recorded in breathless pursuit.

In at least three police interrogations and a videotaped interview, Zimmerman told police he was on his way back to his truck when he was approached from behind by Trayvon, Lee said. Zimmerman said Trayvon attacked him. In fear for his life, Zimmerman said, he reached for the Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic handgun he kept in a holster on his waist and fired.

Attorneys for the family say that the blunders that followed demonstrated that detectives never intended to arrest Zimmerman.

“Police never went knocking door to door that night asking if anybody was missing a kid,” the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said. That’s because it never occurred to police that the boy wasn’t a burglar, so they patted Zimmerman on the back and sent him home, Crump added.

“They acted like, ‘We’re sorry you had to endure killing this teenager,’’’ he said. “They make it look like Zimmerman is the victim.”

Law enforcement experts consulted by The Herald agreed.

“I have never seen such an incompetent investigation,” said Walt Zalisko, a former Jersey City police commander who now owns a police management consulting company in Central Florida. “There are so many problems with this case. The problem up here is that officers receive very little training, and there is very little understanding of diversity issues.

“The good ol’ boy network is so prevalent here.”

Zalisko, who has followed the case closely, said he was startled by Zimmerman’s claim that he had left his truck so he could check the name of the street he was on. Making a point that Chief Lee also made, Zalisko said it’s implausible that Zimmerman would not know where he was in a tiny gated community that he patrolled regularly.

“That’s a lie right there,” Zalisko said. “There are so many inconsistencies in the story. At the very least they should have arrested him, and let the state attorney sort it out.”

Several experts interviewed said Lee’s biggest mistake was to speak publicly about the decision to not file charges, because it made him look like he was defending Zimmerman.

“There are some things in this case that have me scratching my head,” said former Boca Raton police chief Andrew Scott, now a professional expert trial witness. “Instead of saying, ‘There’s no probable cause for arrest,’ he needed to have said: ‘We’re not making an arrest until it is reviewed by the State Attorney’s office.’ Does that mean there is bias?”

Scott said Lee was right to get in front of the cameras in such a high-profile case and provide information to the public, but he needed to make sure everything he said was accurate. “If the chief is saying things which later turn out to be untrue,” Scott said, “there is an overwhelming sense of incongruity and lack of confidence in the investigation.”

The Seminole County State Attorney’s office did not return a request for comment on whether a prosecutor was on the scene that night. Sanford police spokesman Sgt. David Morgenstern said one was called and attended investigative meetings, but he does not know if anyone was present the night Trayvon died.

Morgenstern dismissed lawyers’ criticism that a drug test was conducted on Trayvon’s body but not on Zimmerman, saying toxicology tests are routine for a medical examiner conducting an autopsy, but uncommon for detectives conducting a homicide investigation.

He could not explain why the chief claimed Zimmerman did not know Trayvon’s race when he called 911, except that Lee must have been misinformed.

As for checking the boy’s phone records, Trayvon’s phone was locked and detectives were in the process of getting a subpoena for the records, Morgenstern said. He stressed that the department had pleaded for anyone with information to come forward, suggesting that the girl should have called investigators and the family should have turned the phone records over.

Some news reports criticized the department for using a narcotics detective to question Zimmerman instead of a member of the major-crimes squad.

“An investigator is an investigator, no matter what the word is in front of their title,” the spokesman said.

Zimmerman’s story “had some merit,” and investigators just needed more time, Morgenstern said.

“We could have gone to a judge with the case and the judge could have thrown out the case, and then what justice would Trayvon Martin’s family have?” Morgenstern said. “We chose the long and difficult road, and had to have huge shoulders to bear the criticism. We did the best we could with the information we had at the time.”

Miami Herald staff writers David Ovalle and Audra D.S. Burch contributed to this report.

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