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Sanford city manager: I pressured police chief to quit over Trayvon Martin case

City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. stands by at right while Mayor Jeff Triplett speaks recently about the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Fla.
City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. stands by at right while Mayor Jeff Triplett speaks recently about the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Fla.Steve Nesius / REUTERS

SANFORD, Fla. -- City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. acknowledges that he put pressure last week on Police Chief Bill Lee to step down, though he stopped short of saying whether he threatened to fire Lee.

During a discussion with NBC News on Wednesday, Bonaparte said he held frank conversations with Lee.

“I did suggest,” Bonaparte said, “for the community to move forward, that he consider resigning.”

Asked whether the suggestion constituted an ultimatum, Bonaparte demurred.

"The chief of police, as all of the city department directors, serves at the pleasure of the city manager and can be fired at any time for no cause,” Bonaparte said, adding that he and Lee “came to an agreement.”

Pressed if the agreement required Lee to hand in a resignation letter or be fired, Bonaparte said,  “I think the chief is a very intelligent man.”

The remarks offer some insight into the back-and-forth between Bonaparte and Lee during the days before Monday’s dramatic meeting at City Hall – when Sanford City Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to reject Lee’s resignation.

The vote spiked Bonaparte's effort to place a new leader at the police department this week.

Monday's swing vote came from Mayor Jeff Triplett, who only weeks ago joined the majority in a no-confidence vote in the embattled chief. (Following that March 22 vote, Lee announced he would step down temporarily; he remains on paid leave.)

Lee has been under fire since deciding not to make an arrest in the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, inside a gated community in Sanford. The shooting has set off a national discussion about race, and a controversial self-defense law in Florida.

Monday, Triplett said he wished to wait for an internal review of Lee’s investigation into Martin’s death before accepting the chief's resignation.

Bonaparte said Wednesday he had also been in favor of a review.

“Before making any judgments about Chief Lee,” Bonaparte said, “I wanted an independent assessment from a law enforcement entity that could tell me, did the Sanford police do things they shouldn’t have done?  Did they not do things that they should have done?”

But, Bonaparte added, he concluded that investigators would be slowed by the state’s case against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman accused of second-degree murder in Martin’s death.

“To do a thorough and complete investigation into the Sanford Police Department’s actions,” Bonaparte said, “they will need to look at some of the evidence that the Special Prosecutor has.  That is not public.”

Wednesday’s discussion also offered some insight into Bonaparte himself, who arrived here in September, after leaving a job as city manager in Topeka, Kansas.

Bonaparte said he had been told homelessness would be the key issue here in Sanford.  Now he finds himself caught in the middle of a tempest, receiving angry letters from Lee’s supporters and detractors.

Turning to his computer, Bonaparte said his inbox has 1,643 unopened emails. 

“I can share with you some of the emails and letters that I received,” he said, “very colorful, some of them.”

Bonaparte said he blames the hot atmosphere over Martin’s death in part on visits from national media outlets and activist groups.

“In Kansas – as well as sometimes Florida – we have tornadoes,” Bonaparte said.

“I could see where a tornado could go over a community, completely devastate the community; the tornado keeps going.  It disappears and dissipates.  The community is still destroyed,” he continued.

But Bonaparte, who is African American, also credits the attention his small city has received with forcing an uncomfortable discussion.

“I don't think that it made race relations bad in Sanford,” he said of the case.

“It uncovered how bad they may have been,” he said, adding, “so now let's deal with that.”

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