A Closer Look at the Role of Sanford Police and Chief Bill Lee in the Trayvon Martin Case

On February 26th 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Florida high school student, was found shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., by George Zimmerman — a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain and 28-year-old college student. That Zimmerman was not administered a drug or alcohol test, let alone charged with murder indicates serious problems with the Sanford Police Department’s handling of the case.

After the incident, Martin’s parents were informed by detectives from Sanford Police Department that George Zimmerman had a “squeaky clean” record. It turned out that Zimmerman had been arrested in 2005 on charges of resisting arrest for violence and battery on a police officer in Orange County. The charges were later dropped.

According to recently released 911 calls, Zimmerman reported an unarmed Martin, who was walking home with a bag of Skittles as “suspicious person.” He then ignored the dispatcher’s advice to not follow the teenage boy. The police arrived only to find the teenager’s 140-pound body in a patch of grass about 100 feet from his home.

Zimmerman’s 911 call that day was his 46th call in the past 14 months to report “everything from alarms and disturbances to reckless driving” and especially, “suspicious” persons. As a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, he had been called “aggressive” in residents’ complaints to homeowner’s association and local police. During a meeting of the homeowner’s association, one man expressed his frustration on the lack of responses from the police, despite his complaints on Zimmerman “approaching” and “coming to his home.” Several complaints were also made on his tactics, yet neither the police department nor the board of the homeowner’s association said they had “heard about any complaints.”

Sanford Police Department issued a FAQ in which they explained Zimmerman was not arrested on the night of the shooting because of his “statement  claiming  he  acted  in  self-defense  which  at  the  time  was  supported  by physical evidence and testimony.” However, a closer look of what happened indicates police’s cover-up for Zimmerman.

ABC News reported that post-shooting, “a narcotics detective not a homicide detective first approached Zimmerman.” After a witness told an officer she “heard the teen cry for help,” he “corrected” her that “it was Zimmerman who cried for help.” The Miami Herald contacted three witnesses who said they saw or heard the moments before and after the incidence. All three said they heard “the last howl for help from the despondent boy,” which also matched the 911 tape of the call from a neighbor right when the shooting occurred. Yet the police decided to take Zimmerman at his words and administer neither background check nor a drug or alcohol test.

The “Stand Your Ground” law has been brought to attention as it was backed by the NRA and American Legislative Exchange Council. Sanford Police Department also cited its handling of this case as respecting Zimmerman’s self-defense. Police Chief Lee said Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin did not constitute a crime. However, even “Stand Your Ground” law has little to do with police’s cursory handling of the case. Self-defense, for both Zimmerman and Sanford polices, is just an excuse.

Michael Tabman who was an FBI agent and police for 27 years, says given the “Stand Your Ground” law, he does believe “the facts and circumstances did warrant an arrest and the appropriate investigation” (unlike the police’s official statement indicated). Tabman said: “I am comfortable stating that probable cause to arrest Zimmerman existed. Zimmerman’s weapon and all other evidence should have been seized, witness statements taken and the appropriate crime scene and forensic examination conducted. None of that appears to have been done.” He explained further: “The prima facie evidence does not indicate that Zimmerman was in imminent fear of death or great bodily harm. If the investigation subsequently indicated this, the charges could be dropped. If Zimmerman was charged, then he could raise this as his defense. I never suggest that police make an arrest when the facts do not support one – irrespective of a tragedy. But this was not the case.”

The Trayvon Martin case is not the first one on Sanford Police Department’s mishandling list. In 2005, another black teenager, Travares McGill, was shot by two white security guards, Patrick Swofford and Bryan Ansley, one the son of a police officer. They also claimed McGill tried to run them down but a review of the 600 pages of evidence shows that McGill was shot in the back. Swofford and Ansley were charged with manslaughter and shooting into an occupied vehicle but a judge “cited lack of evidence” and dismissed the case.

In 2010, Justin Collison, a lieutenant’s son, punched a homeless man from behind and knocked him unconscious. Sanford police did not investigate the case until a video recording the incidence surfaced on the internet.

It’s hard to dismiss Sanford police as lazy when there is almost a pattern of police being biased against the victims. Given the national attention this case receives, hopefully necessary reforms of Sanford Police Department will occur to bring back trust between the African American community and the police.

Photo Credit: Flickr