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San Diego City Council Staffer Suspended Without Pay After Shooting Comment

At a San Diego City Council inauguration ceremony, Mark Jones leads a group protesting police brutality, Dec. 10, 2014.
Angela Carone
At a San Diego City Council inauguration ceremony, Mark Jones leads a group protesting police brutality, Dec. 10, 2014.

A staffer for Councilwoman Lorie Zapf referred to police brutality protesters as “idiots” and said “I wanted to shoot them"

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf announced Friday that she suspended a staff member without pay for two weeks after the aide referred to demonstrators protesting police brutality as “idiots” and said “I wanted to shoot them."

Her action came after KPBS published a story about the remarks made by community representative Shirley Owen.

In a statement, Zapf said the staffer "made a grossly inappropriate comment to a friend about individuals who were peacefully protesting" at the city's inauguration Wednesday.


"Her words were extremely insensitive and in no way reflect my beliefs or the values of my office," she said.

"As the first Latina elected to the San Diego City Council, I am acutely aware of the interaction between law enforcement and our communities. Ensuring that there is accountability and trust between those groups is paramount. This is a highly sensitive national conversation, which is in no way helped by flippant remarks,” she said.

Owen also issued her own statement:

“I sincerely apologize for my comment on Wednesday. It was an offhand comment to a friend about the protest, and I should not have said it. It was wrong and in incredibly poor taste. I apologize to all I have offended, and especially to the protestors who were exercising their First Amendment rights by peacefully demonstrating.”

The protesters had rallied outside the city's inauguration at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego and chanted “hands up, don’t shoot.” They then entered the building and lined up alongside the hall where they silently rotated between gestures of raising their arms up, putting their hands around their throats and staging a “die in” by lying down on the ground. The gestures are symbolic of a national movement spurred by recent police killings of unarmed black men.


On stage, Zapf and three other council members each delivered remarks after taking the oath of office. The council members did not acknowledge the demonstrators during their speeches, nor did any other city official on stage. After closing comments, the estimated two dozen protesters, led by Marine veteran and college junior Mark Jones, chanted and marched around the room.

Protesters' List Of Demands
A list of demands protesters with the Student Justice Coalition provided to San Diego City Council members.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

While members of the public and news media waited near the front of the room to speak with Zapf after the ceremony, her community representative Shirley Owen called the protesters “f------ idiots with their hands up” and said “I wanted to shoot them."

When asked later that day about Owen’s comments, Zapf said she supported the demonstrators' right to protest and said they were not disruptive at the ceremony. She said she would speak to Owen about the comment. KPBS followed up with Zapf’s office Thursday and communications director Alex Bell issued this statement:

“Protesting is one of the rights guaranteed to us by the First Amendment, and Councilmember Zapf fully supports that right. Regarding any comment that may or may not have been made by a staff member, action is being taken internally to address the issue. Due to the City’s personnel rules, I am unable to discuss this matter further at this time.”

In an email, Bell said she was not denying Owen made the statement, but said she could not comment further because “I’m not at liberty to discuss personnel matters."

Jones, a 33-year-old student at San Diego State University, said Owen’s statement is an example of the “bigotry” and “racial discrimination” that he and other members of the group are fighting against.

"I know that I have to go through this very system to produce change. I have to fight against that just so I can get our human rights,” he said.

Jones said holding the rally at the inauguration was strategic because he knew all of the the city’s leaders would be there. He had planned to give them a list of changes the group was requesting, such as a special prosecutor to handle cases when police kill a citizen on duty. The group, which goes by the Student Justice Coalition, also wants a civilian review board with the authority to fire officers.

"We’re looking for systemic change across the board. There are a lot of injustices that have been committed in 2014, and obviously the killing of unarmed black men. And there’s racial injustice in our police system. There’s racial injustice in our justice system,” Jones said.

He said he handed the document to as many council members that he could find. Zapf was not one of them.

"Just imagine, what if I couldn’t get to the council member and I got to (Owen) instead and it was her job to relay this to the council,” he said.

Jones, who said he was honorably discharged as a sergeant after four years in the Marines, gave the list of requests to council members Chris Cate, Myrtle Cole, Mark Kersey and David Alvarez.

The people who protested at the inauguration are from universities and colleges in San Diego, Jones said. After attending rallies following a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer for killing a black teenager, he said he wanted to get more students involved.

The Georgia native said he urges protesters to remain peaceful and said he was not involved in the demonstrations that blocked traffic on San Diego’s freeways.

He said he knew the protest at the inauguration would draw attention but didn’t feel the group’s conduct was uncivil.

"I believe we did it in the most respectful manner that we could,” he said.

Jones said he hopes to make it to Monday’s City Council meeting to keep attention on the changes the protesters want for the justice system.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.