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Florida police chief under fire in case of slain teen
ORLANDO, Florida |
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Florida politicians and civil rights leaders joined calls for the firing of a police chief in the case of a neighborhood watch captain who killed an unarmed black teenager, as new details emerged on Wednesday about police handling of the investigation.
"The reality is that people in this community have lost faith in the police chief's ability to keep their children safe," Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told Reuters.
Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, echoed the call in an appearance on CNN. "Not only would I like to see it happen, but I'm joining with them to make sure it happens," Wilson said.
Speaking in the U.S. House of Representatives, Florida congresswoman Corrine Brown criticized the police investigation of the shooter, George Zimmerman, who remains free almost a month after gunning down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin outside a gated community in Sanford, near Orlando.
"No drug tests. No alcohol tests. No lie detector tests. It's just his word that he felt threatened, so therefore he shot to kill. That is unacceptable," said Brown, who is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Martin's killing has sparked widespread outrage since the release of 911 emergency tapes last week.
Late on Wednesday, city commissioners in Sanford passed a motion of "no confidence" in Police Chief Bill Lee Jr., who has said the department acted properly in not arresting Zimmerman after the shooting.
The commission voted 3-2 in favor of the motion, according to Commissioner Patty Mahany. The commission, however, cannot fire Lee, who reports to Sanford's city manager.
Zimmerman, toting a Kel Tek .9 mm PF9 semi-automatic handgun, spotted Martin walking back to his father's girlfriend's house after the teen bought candy and iced tea at a convenience store on February 26.
Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, called police to report a "suspicious guy," and followed Martin despite the dispatcher's advice not to. Neighbors said they heard a scuffle, cries for help and then a gunshot.
Martin's girlfriend in Miami said she was talking on the cellphone with Martin at the time, and that she heard his running account of being followed and trying to get away from Zimmerman.
A police report made public on Wednesday said Martin's death was originally investigated as a homicide, specifically an "unnecessary killing to prevent an unlawful act."
The report, made by the first two officers to arrive at the scene of the shooting, cited a state law that says someone who unnecessarily kills another person while trying to prevent that person from committing an unlawful act, "shall be deemed guilty of manslaughter."
The report said that when the first officer arrived, Martin was lying "face-down on the ground" with his hands beneath him and that Zimmerman told the officer "that he had shot the subject and he (Zimmerman) was still armed."
The officer said he handcuffed Zimmerman and removed the gun and holster from inside Zimmerman's waistband, and saw that his back was "wet and covered in grass" and that he was "bleeding from the nose and back of his head."
Zimmerman was put in the backseat of a police cruiser, given first aid by paramedics and taken to the police station to be interviewed by investigators.
The first officer at the scene, Timothy Smith, wrote in the report that he did not question Zimmerman at the scene.
But that appeared to be contradicted in a "Dear Citizens" statement posted Wednesday on the city's website by City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr.. The statement expressed the city's "heartfelt sympathies to the Martin family," and provided a series of answers by Lee about the case.
In his answers, Lee explained that when police arrived at the scene, Zimmerman "provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense, which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony."
Lee quoted Zimmerman as saying that "he had lost sight of Trayvon and was returning to his truck .... when he says he was attacked by Trayvon."
Lee said that under Florida law police were prohibited from arresting Zimmerman because he said he acted in self-defense.
The police report makes no mention of self-defense nor did it contain any description of Martin's injuries. It said police administered CPR and paramedics tried to revive him but Martin was pronounced dead 13 minutes after the first officer arrived.
Bonaparte said he stood by Lee and called the police investigation "complete and fair." Bonaparte later told CNN he would reserve judgment of the police chief's handling of the case until an independent law enforcement review was conducted.
Lee previously told reporters he had no choice under Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law but to let Zimmerman go free. The 2005 law allows someone in fear of "great bodily harm" to respond with deadly force, ending the duty to retreat if possible to avoid confrontation.
Chris Smith, a black Florida state senator, announced on Wednesday he is drafting new legislation to "drastically" change that law, which he said has increased deaths in the state due to "self-defense" by more than 250 percent. The law originally was promoted by the National Rifle Association, the nation's leading gun rights group, and opposed by many in law enforcement.
"We can't keep turning a blind eye to the number of lives this law has claimed," Smith said in a statement. "'Stand Your Ground' in its present form continues to endanger Floridians by not only giving someone the right to shoot first, but immunity for their actions, whether justified or not."
Organized protests over the case continue to multiply, with three events on Wednesday. Jealous spent a second day in Sanford taking testimony from local residents about past experiences with local police. Those will be turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is reviewing Martin's shooting.
About 60 people protested outside the Orlando state office building where gun permits are issued. The Florida Civil Rights Association's Wesley Leonard urged Florida Governor Rick Scott to issue an executive order rescinding Zimmerman's permit to carry a concealed gun.
Inez Edwards Savage, 52, a parent and a healthcare worker, said she joined the protest after hearing on the news that Zimmerman looked at Martin and instantly labeled him "suspicious."
"Perhaps Mr. Zimmerman shouldn't look at others as a problem, or race as a problem, but look at himself. He's a problem. It's his thinking," Savage said.
In New York City, Martin's parents were among hundreds of people who attended a march in Union Square promoted by a 24-year-old Daniel Maree, a black digital strategist who said he felt that he or his sister could just as easily have been in Martin's place.
Zimmerman's current location is unknown and he has not spoke publicly about the shooting.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray and Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Jane Sutton, David Adams and Paul Simao)
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