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Police Chief Steps Aside Amid Fallout from Teen’s Death

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SANFORD, Florida (CNN) -- Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee announced Thursday he is stepping down "temporarily" as head of the department, which has been criticized for its handling of the shooting last month of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

"I am aware that my role as a leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation," he told reporters. "It is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process. Therefore, I have come to the decision that I must temporarily remove myself from the position."

He added, "I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks."

Lee's decision came a day after the city commission voted 3-2 in favor of a nonbinding measure of no confidence.

City Manager Norton Bonaparte said Thursday that he would like an independent review of police action in the wake of the shooting.

NAACP President Ben Jealous, however, was more forthright. Parents, he said, don't feel that their children will be safe with Lee heading the police department.

"He needs to go right now," Jealous said prior to Lee's announcement.

Lee's decision came as Justice Department officials planned to meet Thursday with the parents of Martin, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in an Orlando suburb.

The federal agency has launched a civil rights investigation into the case that has riveted the nation. Martin's family asserts that race was a factor in the black teenager's death.

The meeting comes after Martin's parents joined demonstrators in New York on Wednesday evening in a rally calling for justice. Another rally, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, is planned for Thursday night at a church in Sanford, a racially mixed city of about 50,000 people just north of Orlando.

Martin was shot February 26 while walking to the house of his father's fiancee after a trip to a convenience store. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader, said he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense.

Zimmerman has not been arrested. A police report calls him a white male; his family says that he is Hispanic and that he has wrongly been described as a racist.

The uproar over Martin's death has reverberated nationwide with demands for Zimmerman's arrest and scrutiny of police actions.

More than 1.2 million people have signed a petition on Change.org urging prosecution for Zimmerman. Thursday morning, the petition was getting 1,000 signatures per minute, said Noland Chambliss, communications manager for Change.org.

CNN has made numerous attempts to contact Zimmerman but has been unsuccessful.

A Seminole County grand jury will convene on the matter April 10, according to State Attorney Norm Wolfinger.

Demonstrators crowded New York's Union Square on Wednesday night for the protest attended by Martin's parents. Many wore hoodies, the type of clothing Martin was wearing when he was shot, and carried Skittles, the candy he purchased from the convenience store the night he was killed.

"George Zimmerman took Trayvon's life for nothing," the teenager's father, Tracy Martin, said at the rally.

"Our son did not deserve to die. There's nothing that we can say that will bring him back, but I'm here today to assure that justice is served and that no other parents have to go through this again."

"Our son is your son," said Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton. "This is not about a black-and-white thing. This is about a right-and-wrong thing. Justice for Trayvon!"

Earlier, she described her situation as a nightmare.

"It's hard to sleep," she said. "Everything reminds me of him, and the only thing that's fueling us to keep pressing on for justice is the fact that we know that justice will be served."

Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood, saw Martin walking home after buying a drink and the Skittles. He called 911 and reported what he described as a suspicious person. Moments later, several neighbors called the emergency number to report a commotion outside.

The 911 tapes, released by police, revealed that while some neighbors were on the phone with emergency dispatchers, cries for help followed by a gunshot sounded in the background.

"The time that we heard the whining and then the gunshot, we did not hear any wrestling, no punching, no fighting, nothing to make it sound like there was a fight," said Mary Cutcher, one of the callers.

Cutcher said Zimmerman was confused after the shooting.

"He'd pace and go back to the body and just like -- I don't know if he was kind of, 'Oh, my God, what did I do? What happened?' " she said.

Another caller, Selma Mora Lamilla, said she did not hear any altercation, but the teen cried and "whimpered" before the shooting.

She described Zimmerman as "straddling" the teen after the shooting, saying he was "on his knees on top of a body."

Martin's girlfriend was on the phone with him during the incident and can help prove he was killed "in cold blood," said Benjamin Crump, the Martin family's attorney.

The girl connects the dots and "completely blows Zimmerman's absurd self-defense claim out of the water," Crump said.

Shortly before he was shot, the teen told his girlfriend that someone was following him and he was trying to get away, according to the lawyer. The girl, who did not want to be identified, said that during the call, she heard Martin ask why the person was following him.

She got the impression there was an altercation in which his cell phone earpiece fell out after he was pushed, and the connection went dead, Crump said. She did not hear gunfire, he said.

Zimmerman attended a four-month program in 2008 at the sheriff's office that teaches citizens about law enforcement, said Kim Cannaday, spokeswoman for the Seminole County sheriff's office.

In his application for the course, Zimmerman wrote: "I hold law enforcement officers in the highest regard and I hope to one day become one."

Zimmerman's father, Robert, told a Florida newspaper that the 28-year-old had moved from the area after receiving death threats.

He was a student at Seminole State College, but the college said Thursday that it "taken the unusual but necessary step this week to withdraw" Zimmerman from enrollment. It cited the high-profile nature of the controversy and said the decision was based on concern for safety for Zimmerman and the students on campus.

Zimmerman's family has denied that race played a role, saying he has many minority relatives and friends.

"The portrayal of George Zimmerman in the media, as well as the series of events that led to the tragic shooting, are false and extremely misleading. Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations have used this tragedy to further their own causes and agendas," his father said in a letter published in the Orlando Sentinel.

"George is a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends," Robert Zimmerman wrote. "He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever."

Heated debate has erupted over whether Zimmerman used a racial slur during the 911 call, a recording of which was released this week.

"We didn't hear it. However, I am not sure what was said," Sgt. David Morgenstern of the Sanford Police Department said.

"I have listened to the tapes, and I have not heard them use a racial slur," concurred City Manager Bonaparte.

A top CNN audio engineer enhanced the sound of the 911 call, and several members of CNN's editorial staff repeatedly reviewed the tape but could reach no consensus on whether Zimmerman used a racial slur.

Whether Zimmerman used such language prior to shooting Martin is key, according to CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

"It's extremely, extremely significant because the federal government is not allowed to prosecute just your ordinary, everyday murder," he said. "Two people fighting on the street is not a federal crime. However, if one person shoots another based on racial hostility, racial animus, that does become a federal crime."

Toobin said that if "very shortly before" the shooting, "Zimmerman used this racial epithet to refer to the person he openly shot, that very much puts it within the FBI's and the Justice Department's ambit of a case that they could prosecute."

Police say they have not charged Zimmerman because they have no evidence to contradict his story that he shot in self-defense.

The shooting has renewed a debate over a controversial state law and sparked calls for a review.

Florida's deadly force law, also called "stand your ground," allows people to meet "force with force" if they believe that there is danger of serious harm to themselves or someone else.

-- CNN's Ross Levitt, Julian Cummings, Susan Candiotti, Vivian Kuo, David Mattingly, John Zarrella, Kimberly Segal, Brian Vitagliano, Melanie Whitley, Dave Alsup and Moni Basu contributed to this report.