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Police chief steps down temporarily over handling of Trayvon Martin case

As people across the country demand justice for Trayvon Martin, the teen who was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., after leaving a convenience store, the city's police chief said his involvement in the case has become 'a distraction.' NBC's Ron Allen reports.

The police chief criticized for not arresting a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin  temporarily stepped down Thursday, saying he had become a distraction to the investigation.

Police Capt. Scott O'Connor will run the department until an interim chief is appointed, City Manager Norton Bonaparte said.

Lee and his department have come under withering criticism from Martin's family and their supporters, who have demanded the arrest of George Zimmerman in the Feb. 26 incident.


On Wednesday, the Sanford City Commission voted 3-2 that it had no confidence in Lee over how the case has been handled.

Velma Williams, the city’s only black commissioner, said she spent 15 years trying to bring together the black community and white community, and the Martin episode has taken an emotional toll. “And now this. It’s a national embarrassment," she said.

Commissioners Patty Mahany and Randy Jones supported the police chief, who came on the job last May.

"I would not want to see someone tried in the court of public opinion without all the facts," Jones said.

Mayor Jeff Triplett sounded a similar theme, though he voted against Lee. "We only have a very small piece of the puzzle right now," he said.

Commissioners cannot fire Lee, as he reports to City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr.

Amid growing outrage over Trayvon Martin, Sanford's city council passed a vote of no confidence in Police Chief Bill Lee for his handling of the murder investigation. MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell asks Sandford city manager Norton Bonaparte if he plans to fire him. Plus, MSNBC's Al Sharpton weighs in.

Williams implied that if Bonaparte doesn't fire Lee, she would review his contract the next time it comes up for renewal.

More from NBCMiami.com on the no-confidence vote

She nearly fainted after the vote because she became so emotional, and had to be treated by a paramedic.

Residents then took to the podium to say their piece.

"So what does this vote of no confidence mean?" Oscar Reden Jr. asked. "It means that that man right there ... Bonaparte, has to make a choice. You got to make a choice. He works for you!"

Bonaparte said Wednesday that he wanted to wait for the Department of Justice and the Brevard-Seminole State Attorney's Office to finish their investigations before he acts, the Orlando Sentinel reported Wednesday.

It wasn't immediately how long the police chief would step aside. Martin's parents said that wasn't enough, and that Zimmerman should be taken into custody.

"We want an arrest, we want a conviction and we want him sentenced for the murder of my son," Martin's father, Tracy, said to fiery crowd of about 1,000 supporters in downtown Sanford on Thursday.

Some people believed the police chief should step down for good.

"If they wanted to defuse a potential powder keg, he needed to resign," said pastor Eugene Walton, 58, who was born and raised in Sanford. "His inaction speaks loudly to the black community."

News of the police chief's decision to step aside spread quickly among the protesters, many of whom showed up more than two hours before the start of the rally. They chanted "The chief is gone. Zimmerman is next."

Some carried signs that said: "100 years of lynching, justifiable homicide. Same thing." Others sold T-shirts that read: "Arrest Zimmerman."

Gun control advocates say the Florida law that authorizes using deadly force to stop someone from committing a serious crime also encourages violent behavior. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

"It's the norm around here, where anything involving black culture, they want to wipe their hands of it," said Shella Moore, who is black and grew up in Sanford.

The Justice Department and FBI have opened a civil rights investigation, and the local prosecutor has convened a grand jury April 10 to determine whether to charge Zimmerman.

Before the rally, Martin's parents met with the local U.S. attorney, the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in Washington and the head of the FBI's Tampa office to discuss the investigation.

"We listened carefully to the concerns of the family and their representatives," Special Agent Dave Couvertier, an FBI spokesman, said in a statement. "We continue to extend our deepest condolences to Trayvon's family for their loss."

Hundreds march in support of Martin family in Miami, New York

The man who fatally shot Miami Gardens teen Martin was not arrested the night of the incident because his self-defense claim “was supported by physical evidence and testimony,” according to Lee.

Zimmerman told police that Martin attacked him after he had given up on chasing the teenager and was returning to his sport utility vehicle.

Police were thus prohibited from arresting Zimmerman, 28, “based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time,” Lee said, as he answered six questions about the case in a statement that was posted on the city's website.

Bonaparte released his statement in response to media attention and “a flood of questions and strong emotions from within our community, the region and nation” about Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin, Bonaparte said.

Neighbor comes to defense of Trayvon Martin's shooter

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot Martin during a confrontation in a gated community in Sanford on Feb. 26. Martin was returning from a 7-Eleven to his father’s girlfriend’s home at The Retreat at Twin Lakes when the shooting happened.

In his explanation, Lee referred to the “stand your ground” provisions of state law. They say that Floridians have the right “to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force" if they feel threatened. Lee pointed to a part of the statute that says “the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.”

'Stand Your Ground' law could complicate Martin case

Lee said that Zimmerman has a concealed weapon permit, so he was authorized and legally able to carry the gun he used to shoot Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer.

The Sanford City Commission passed a vote of "no confidence" in police Chief Bill Lee Wednesday night over his handling of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators assembled a "Million Hoodie March" in New York City to call for the arrest of Martin's killer. NBC's Lilia Luciano reports.

Sanford's neighborhood watch handbook, which is also posted on the city's site, says that program participants' main role is to "observe and report suspicious activities" happening in their neighborhood to police.

"What you will not do is get physically involved with any activity you report or apprehension of any suspicious persons. This is the job of the law enforcement agency," it says in bold.

On another page that spells out watch members' responsibilities, the handbook says, "Remember always that your responsibility is to report crime. Do not take any risks to prevent a crime or try to make an arrest. The responsibility for apprehending criminals belongs to the police department."

Zimmerman did not follow those instructions, according to police and Martin's family members and attorneys. Instead, he followed Martin on that night, disregarding a dispatcher's statement that "you don't need to do that," Lee said.

But that suggestion was "not a lawful order that Mr. Zimmerman would be required to follow," Lee said.

Martin's final phone call with his girlfriend painted a starker picture, according to Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump.

He said that Martin got caught in the rain, put on his hoodie and was running to take cover, and then noticed, as he told his girlfriend, that "this dude is following me."

She told him to be careful and run home, and he momentarily lost Zimmerman. But then he told her that Zimmerman was right behind him again, and she told him to run, Crump said.

"He says 'I'm not gonna run, I'm just gonna walk fast,'" Crump said.

The fatal confrontation that ended Martin's life happened moments later.

Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from NBCMiami.com.

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