Nida supporters, mayor clash over online news site

DOWNEY - On March 5, Downey Beat editor John Zander posted an image on the online newspaper's Facebook page featuring the monument located in front of the Downey Police Department. The bronze statue, depicting an officer kneeling on one knee, is a memorial for fallen police officers, with particular emphasis on Officer Wayne Presley, the only Downey officer killed in the line of duty.

Shortly after, Damion Ramirez posted a Facebook comment about the image.

"The gist of what I said was that if it were a memorial for Mikey, it would depict my friend on the ground bleeding to death as Downey officers stood over him trying to get their stories straight," Ramirez said.

"Mikey" is Michael Nida, the 31-year-old father of four who was shot and killed near the intersection of Imperial Highway and Paramount Boulevard by Downey police officer Steven Gilley on Oct. 22, 2011. Nida, who was later found to be unarmed, was mistaken as a robbery suspect.

The L.A. County District Attorney's office ruled Gilley was justified in using deadly force.

Ramirez, who was Nida's best friend, is now an outspoken activist against police brutality. As a member of Nida's Rydas, the group formed with the goal of "stopping the use of lethal force by the Downey Police Department" and raising awareness around Nida's case. Ramirez and other group members have attended every city council meeting for a year and a half and have protested against the city every Saturday near the intersection where Nida was killed.

After Ramirez posted the comment on the Downey Beat's Facebook page, Zander deleted it, along with every other comment Ramirez attempted to post. The activist has since been blocked from the site entirely, with other Nida's Ryda's members saying any and all comments they attempt to post that deal with Nida's case, police brutality, or the actions of the police department are also being deleted.

In response to Ramirez's deleted comment on the site's Facebook page, Zander wrote, "As Editor of the Downey Beat I reserve the right to monitor and delete inappropriate posts. Any posts that are disrespectful to the Downey Police Department will be removed. I have removed several that a user just kept reposting. Those were reported and blocked. The Downey Beat will not tolerate any disrespect towards the brave men and woman [sic] who protect us."

The Downey Beat was founded by prize-winning journalist Ben Baeder, who garnered a large following for his hard-hitting, investigative journalism. Under Baeder's watch, the Downey Beat was actually one of the first news outlets to release Nida's autopsy report and was considered a reputable news source by many. Because of family obligations, however, Baeder was forced to give up the site in September 2012 and in December of the same year, the Downey Beat was purchased by mayor Mario Guerra, who hired Zander to manage the day-to-day operations of the site.

Since being purchased by Guerra, the website has taken a markedly different approach, focusing on features and city updates rather than breaking news, while also taking a more conversational approach to writing.

Baeder, who provided some initial guidance to Zander after the site was purchased by Guerra, no longer has anything to do with the Downey Beat and says that Guerra and Zander are "well within their rights" to delete comments, though it's not something Baeder did when he was running the site.

"When the site was mine, I had different goals; I wanted to run a news site. Hard news doesn't seem to be the goal of the site," Baeder said. "I wanted to keep things open, so I never deleted comments, even really negative comments that were directed toward me. Allowing people to say whatever they wanted made the site feel more user-owned."

Zander, who declined an interview request, did release a statement, saying in part: "I am solely responsible for the editorial content of the Downey As the editor, I reserve the right to remove any posts that I find offensive, harassing or disrespectful. I removed two posts from a photo of the Police Officer Memorial which were highly disrespectful to the Downey Police Department and its officers ...The offensive posts continued, so those users access was deleted. The Downey is a privately owned website. Under my supervision, the outlet has become a magazine for the city, with a mission to champion all of the positive things that the wonderful city of Downey has to offer."

Though Zander characterizes the Downey Beat as a "privately-owned website" and "magazine for the city," the Beat's website says it is an "online newspaper," which is why Ramirez says it's unethical for the site to delete comments based on the editor and owner's personal opinions.

"The site says it's a newspaper, not a personal blog, meaning it's a public record and it needs to be objective," Ramirez said. "The point of a newspaper is to make sure all sides are heard; not to be a cheerleader for the city... It's a conflict of interest and it's unethical."

Ramirez says he is being unfairly targeted by the news site because of an explosive exchange between he and Guerra during the public comments portion of a Feb. 26 city council meeting. Ramirez criticized Guerra for creating a deacon award to be issued at each city council meeting, saying it is "self-serving and egotistical," given that Guerra had "failed at his duties" as deacon at St. Raymond's Catholic Church, where he baptized two of Nida's children. In January of this year, Guerra was removed as deacon from the church and reassigned as a stational deacon at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angeles in downtown Los Angeles.

During the February council meeting, Guerra became enraged by Ramirez's comments and when Ramirez instructed the mayor to listen to what he had to say, Guerra stormed out of the meeting.

In a statement, Guerra said Zander is the editor and makes all editorial decisions: "... just as The Patriot has rightfully done in the past, any privately owned paper should reserve the right to delete any postings that are obscene, harassing or misleading. I'm glad all papers have the right to delete or not allow things that are lies and damaging to others without cause. Especially when they are inflammatory remarks that do not serve the interest of the readers."

In reference to the city council meeting, Guerra wrote:

"I am saddened that some have continued to harass and disrupt the business of our City. Some protestors have elevated their personal attacks on me, our council, our staff and our fine Police Department. Warning statements read before every council meeting about who and how to address the City Council are being ignored. They have chosen to act in an inappropriate manner, including clapping and yelling from their seats in council chambers and I feel that we need to move forward on behalf of our residents. They even continue to be disrespectful of our countries [sic] pledge of alliance [sic] at the beginning of our meetings.

Illegal actions and behavior should not, and will not, be tolerated from anybody."

********** Published: March 14, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 48