The police chief of a Florida town where an unarmed black teenager was killed by a self-declared neighbourhood watch volunteer said he would temporarily step down from his job, saying his role in the investigation had become too much of a distraction.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee had been heading up the investigation into the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by
watch captain George Zimmerman, 28.
The shooting sparked a nationwide public outcry over Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which Zimmerman says makes the killing self defence.
Police have declined to arrest Zimmerman.
Meanwhile, organised protests over the case continue to multiply, with three events on Wednesday. Thousands gathered at a rally in Fort Mellon Park in Sanford, Florida.
Lee, who has been on the job less than a year, called himself a distraction and said it had become "apparent that my involvement in the matter is overshadowing the process."
"I must temporarily remove myself from the position as police chief for the city of Sanford. 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.
"It is my hope that the investigation will move forward swiftly and appropriately through the justice system and that a
final determination in this case is reached," he added.
Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, speaking at a press conference at City Hall, said he was starting a search for an interim police chief. Until someone is named, two current captains will head the police force of 140 officers, he said.
"What the city of Sanford wants more than anything else for the Trayvon Martin family is justice," Bonaparte said.
Lee's decision to step down comes a day after he received a vote of "no confidence" by Sanford's city commissioners and follows calls for his resignation by civil rights groups angered over the police department's handling of the case.
Turner Clayton, president of the Seminole County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP), said he was relieved to see Lee step aside.
"The city commission made a good start last night," he said."Based on that, the chief had no other recourse but to remove himself. We hope it becomes permanent."
Lee previously said 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, and removes any duty to retreat if possible to avoid confrontation.
On February 26, Martin was returning to a gated community from a candy run at a convenience store when Zimmerman, carrying a licensed handgun in his role as a neighborhood watch captain, saw him.
He called police to report "a suspicious guy" and followed him despite the dispatcher's advice not to do so.
Neighbours said they heard a scuffle, cries for help and then a gunshot.
The unresolved case continues to spark rallies, including one planned later on Thursday that will be led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton, and has raised broader questions about race relations and police policies in Sanford.
"There are serious problems that go beyond this case," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the national office of the NAACP. "We have heard that in the town halls."
Jealous said he next wanted to see Zimmerman arrested.
"We've got to get Mr. Zimmerman behind bars. People needed to know if their son or daughter is stalked and killed in cold blood, the killer will be put behind bars."
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|Timothy V. Gatto|