Chief Bill Lee answers questions about investigation into shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin
by Herald Staff
March 17 2012 at 1459 | 27 27 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Feb. 26 Trayvon Martin, 17, of Miami, was returning to The Retreat at Twin Lakes when a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, 28, shot and killed him. Following an investigation, police determined that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when the shooting occured. Chief Bill Lee took the time to answer key questions for The Sanford Herald about the investigation and why the Sanford Police Department has not released many details surrounding the case. SPD has since forwarded the case to the State Attorney’s Office.

The men and women of the Sanford Police Department extend our heartfelt sympathies to the Martin family. This is indeed a tragic situation. The death of anyone due to violence, especially a 17-year-old young man, is morally appalling. As a father, I can only image the pain Trayvon’s family must be going though. As this incident has generated a lot of media attention, we wanted to provide answers to some of the most frequently asked questions. Please understand that since this is still an ongoing investigation, the police department is limited in what information it can publicly release.

Q. Why was George Zimmerman was not arrested the night of the shooting?

A. When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense, which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida Statute, law enforcement was prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.

Additionally, when any police officer makes an arrest for any reason, the officer must swear and affirm that he/she is making the arrest in good faith and with probable cause. If the arrest is done maliciously and in bad faith, the officer and the city may be held liable.

According to Florida Statute 776.032 :

Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.— 776.032

A person who uses force as permitted in s. (1) 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force, unless the person against whom force was used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who was acting in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a law enforcement officer. As used in this subsection, the term “criminal prosecution” includes arresting, detaining in custody, and charging or prosecuting the defendant.

A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force as described in subsection (1), but 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. (2)

Q. Why were the 911 tapes not released initially?

A. There are exemptions to the public records laws for active criminal intelligence and for ongoing investigations. In this instance, the 911 calls made by neighbors in the subdivision, and the non-emergency call made by Mr. Zimmerman are all key to the investigation by Sanford Police Department.

In consultation with the Office of the State Attorney, the Sanford Police Department decided not to release the audio recordings of the 911 calls due to the ongoing investigation. Many times, specific information is contained in those recordings that is vital to the integrity of the investigation. Should it be revealed, the information may compromise the integrity of the investigation prior to its completion.

Q. Why did Mr. Zimmerman have a firearm in his possession while acting in the role of a neighborhood watch member?

A. Mr. Zimmerman holds a concealed weapon permit issued from the State of Florida. He is authorized to carry the weapon in a concealed manner wherever Florida Statute dictates.

Neighborhood Watch programs are designed for members of a neighborhood to be “eyes and ears” for police and to watch out for their neighbors. They are not members of the police department nor are they vigilantes.

Training provided by law enforcement agencies to Neighborhood Watch organizations stresses non-contact surveillance of suspicious situations, and notifying police of those situations so that law enforcement can respond and take control of the situation.

Mr. Zimmerman was not acting outside the legal boundaries of Florida Statute by carrying his weapon when this incident occurred. He was in fact on a personal errand in his vehicle when he observed Mr. Martin in the community and called the Sanford Police Department.

Q. If Zimmerman was told not to continue to follow Trayvon, can that be considered in this investigation?

A. Yes it will. However, the telecommunications call taker asked Zimmerman, “Are you following him?” Zimmerman replied, “Yes.” The call taker stated, “You don’t need to do that.” The call taker’s suggestion is not a lawful order that Mr. Zimmerman would be required to follow.

Zimmerman’s statement was that he had lost sight of Trayvon and was returning to his truck to meet the police officer when he says he was attacked by Trayvon.

Q. Why was George Zimmerman labeled as “squeaky clean” when in fact he has a prior arrest history?

A. In one of the initial meetings with the father of the victim the investigator related to him the account that Mr. Zimmerman provided of the incident. At that time the investigator said that Mr. Zimmerman portrayed himself to be “squeaky clean.” We are aware of the background information regarding both individuals involved in this event. We believe Mr. Martin may have misconstrued this information.

Q. What about media reenactments of the shooting incident?

A. Any media reenactments of the shooting incident are purely speculation. To date the Sanford Police Department has not released any rendition of the events of the evening to anyone other than the Office of the State Attorney. The renditions we have seen are not consistent with the evidence in this case.

(Please note: 911 calls in this case have since been released.)

Let me assure you the investigative team assigned to this investigation has done a remarkable job under extremely difficult circumstances. We have provided the results of our investigation to the Office of the State Attorney for their review for possible criminal prosecution. It is our hope that members of our community will allow the judicial process to now take its course of action.

Bill R. Lee Jr.

Chief of Police

City of Sanford