La Mesa police dispatcher not disciplined for comments in online news story

LA MESA, Calif. - Team 10 uncovered internal memos that show the La Mesa police chief refusing to take action over racially charged comments a staff member made online.

Michael Beaver was beaten to death outside a Gaslamp restaurant in June. At the time, San Diego police wanted to question four people. In the comments section of an online news story, La Mesa police dispatcher Gaby Willis called one of the suspects a "useless black gang member," although the story mentioned nothing about gang ties.

In a letter obtained by Team 10 from police chief Ed Aceves, he said the comments were made when the dispatcher was "off-duty."

"When comments are made under these circumstances, they are typically protected under the First Amendment," Aceves wrote.

Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the San Diego chapter of the NAACP, said public employees who work for police departments should be held to a higher standard.

"The public looks up to them, they are public servants, and their job is to protect and serve," Wilson said.

On a 10News story about former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Willis wrote that "blacks can say the most vile and disgusting things towards white people and themselves and never a word is said."

"She probably regrets being found out, more than she regrets making the statements themselves," said legal analyst Dan Eaton.

Eaton said from a legal standpoint, there is a specific guideline on taking disciplinary action over speech.

"A public employer does not have a broad right to punish speech it doesn't like just because it doesn't like it," Eaton said.

Under law, Eaton said a public employer may only punish or restrict speech "to the extent that such a response is directed at speech that has some potential to affect the public entity's operations."

The chief's letter, addressed to all within the police department, said:

"Putting this information out to all of you is not intended to further embarrass the employee, but so that we can hopefully learn from these circumstances. This issue highlights the need for everyone the [sic] make sure their social media sites are protected with the most up to date privacy settings."

The comments made by Willis were on news websites.

In an email obtained by Team 10 from the La Mesa Police Officers Association president, he considered the employee lucky.

He said he was "shocked [but] glad" there was no internal investigation and that the chief was being "very generous."

In the letter, the LMPOA president also wrote: "In my discussions with our Attorney he made it very clear that there is current case law and plenty of examples where public employees (that's us) are not afforded the same protections under the First Amendment as private citizens are ..."

Wilson said this should not be the end of the story.

"I have to wonder if I was in La Mesa, as an African-American and she answered the dispatch and knew I was African-American, whether my concern or my situation would be taken as seriously?" Wilson said.

Wilson told Team 10 she hopes Willis was counseled and believes there should be more diversity training within the department. She said she is willing to sit down with the chief and the staff.

Team 10 reached out to the La Mesa Police Department, but a spokesman said they had no comment.

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