The shooting ignited resentment toward the police department in this Orlando suburb for not making an arrest. Civil rights groups have held rallies in Florida and New York, saying the shooting was unjustified. Of Sanford’s 53,000 residents, 57 percent are white and 30 percent are black.
In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, state attorney Wolfinger said that while he thought he could fairly oversee any prosecution that develops in the case, his recusal was aimed at “toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation.” Scott appointed Angela B. Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, to take over.
The chief’s decision came less than a day after city commissioners gave him a “no confidence” vote and after a couple of weeks of protests and uproar on social media websites. Lee has said evidence supported Zimmerman’s assertion that the shooting was in self-defense.
“I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to a city which has been in turmoil for several weeks,” Lee said.
The chief said he stood behind his agency’s investigation.
“As a former homicide investigator, a career law enforcement officer and a father, I am keenly aware of the emotions associated with this tragic death of a child. I’m also aware that my role as a leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation,” Lee said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how long the police chief would step aside. Some people said he should just quit.
“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.”
Dick Gregory, a comedian who uses humor to convey his civil rights message, said the steady pressure should be the goal going forward.
“All you have to do is be a turtle,” he said. “Hard on the outside, soft on the inside and willing to stick your neck out.”