Mural controversy: Artists felt blindsided

SAN DIEGO - Artists painting a mural inside the Southeast San Diego Police station said they have been told to stop work because certain officers had a problem with the content of the mural.

San Diego police said the mural should have been painted on panels so it could be preserved or modify easily.  The artists told Team 10 they were only told to stop painting after some officers complained there were "too many black faces" on the mural.

"They just told us they didn't like it, "Rafael Hernandez said.

Hernandez has been on the mural crew since February.

"Halfway done, they didn't like all the black people in it," said mural designer Angel Hernandez.

The mural features Southeastern Division Captain Tony McElroy, the district's city council representative, Myrtle Cole, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"The complaints that we heard were that there were too many African-Americans up there and they're saying, ‘Where are the other nationalities?'," artist Rebekah Rogers said.

Rogers also helped with the painting, including a depiction of officer Christopher Wilson.  He was killed in the line of duty in 2010.

The mural crew is part of Oceanside-based Gangland Ministries. Ministry founder Roy Vallez said his ministry has helped more than 500 gang-affiliated or at-risk kids go to college.

He said he was also surprised by how certain officers reacted to the mural.

"I heard an officer come by and say, ‘Why is Myrtle Cole up there? Why is Martin Luther King up there?’" Vallez said. "If this is the kind of representation they're giving my kids, it's not good."

According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, more than 20 percent of southeast San Diego residents were African American.

Three active-duty San Diego police officers told Team 10 complaints about the mural were taken to police command.

A department spokesman called the claims "absolutely false" and said Chief Shelley Zimmerman wants any complaints investigated.

The mural also was a topic of conversation at a high level meeting Tuesday morning between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and top brass at the department including Chief Zimmerman. The meeting lasted about an hour and was focused on racial profiling.

It was a meeting that had already been scheduled before the Team 10 investigation into the mural, but the mural and the comments made about it were brought up during the meeting.

"Chief Zimmerman said had I not brought it up, she would have brought it up," said Lei-Chala Wilson, the president of the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP. "What we're working towards is having a better relationship between the community and law enforcement so this kind of makes us go back a little bit when we're trying to move forward."

Members of the ACLU also expressed concern over racial comments made about the mural.

"We're really concerned that it was a culture that these active-duty officers felt comfortable in expressing that there were too many black faces," said Christina Griffin, a community organizer with the ACLU.

Griffin said they hope the mural "is preserved and doesn't go away for the simple reason that there are too many black faces."

Work on the mural has been stopped, but a San Diego police spokesman said it had nothing to do with claims brought to Team 10.

"The claims that there are too many black people on it are absolutely false," said Lt. Kevin Mayer, a spokesman with the department. "This mural should have been on panels."

Mayer said that way the mural can be preserved if there is change in leadership or if a wall is refurbished.

Councilwoman Myrtle Cole tweeted that she applauded "Chief Zimmerman's action to investigate and address any comments, if made by any officer on the San Diego Police Department."

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