Racist Emails Lead to Downfall of Top L.A. County Sheriff's Official
By Alene Tchekmedyian
A top Los Angeles County sheriff's official has resigned amid mounting criticism over emails he sent mocking Muslims, blacks, Latinos, women and others from his work account during his previous job with the Burbank Police Department, the Sheriff's Department announced Sunday.
After previously saying that he had no immediate plans to discipline his chief of staff, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement that he had accepted Tom Angel's resignation and intended to turn the controversy into a "learning opportunity" for his department employees.
"This incident is one that I find deeply troubling," McDonnell said. "Despite the Sheriff's Department's many recent efforts to fortify public trust and enhance internal and external accountability and transparency, this incident reminds us that we and other law enforcement agencies still have work to do."
McDonnell said he would introduce random audits of employee email accounts and would meet with community groups to "share thoughts and ideas about improving our understanding of the varied cultures and orientations and deepening our appreciation of the many ethnicities and religions that are part of the vibrant fabric of the population we serve." The department would also examine its training and existing policies for "ensuring accountability and enhancing cultural and ethnic sensitivity," he said.
Angel's resignation came after The Times published emails obtained under the state's open records act. The forwarded emails prompted numerous civil rights advocates to call on the sheriff to discipline his chief of staff. By Sunday, the consensus was that Angel should step down or be fired.
Angel did not respond to messages seeking comment. He previously told The Times that he did not mean to embarrass or demean anyone. He said it was unfortunate that his work emails could be obtained by the public under the state's records laws.
It is unclear what lasting effect, if any, the controversy will have on McDonnell's standing among local civil rights advocates.
McDonnell was elected in November 2014 as an outsider promising to steer the agency past an era in which some deputies beat jail inmates and others were found to have singled out African Americans and Latinos in the Antelope Valley for harassment. He brought Angel, a veteran sheriff's official, back from Burbank as a key member of his reform administration.
Angel's resignation was welcomed by many of the civil rights advocates who had called on McDonnell to act, though some said the sheriff should have done more sooner. McDonnell had previously said he was disappointed by the emails but didn't have plans to take action because Angel sent the messages while working for Burbank.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said Angel's resignation was not a moment to rejoice but to "roll up our sleeves and help the sheriff develop a culture of partnership and accountability and transparency within his office."
Haroon Manjlai, a spokesman for the greater L.A. chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the sheriff's decision to accept his chief of staff's resignation sent an important message going forward.
"Hopefully now, if incidents like these happen again, the precedent is to step down or be dismissed," Manjlai said. "It promotes zero tolerance when it comes to any kind of xenophobic or insensitive behavior to any community."
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said the sheriff should have acted against Angel rather than wait for public criticism to build.
"You're not doing anything if your initial reaction is, 'That's horrible, that's terrible, but there's nothing I can do or nothing I intend to do,'" Hutchinson said. "This is your department. You are the man at the top, you set the direction, the tempo, the climate for the department. If you don't take action, what you're saying is the department doesn't care."
Hutchinson, who last week called for an audit of all sheriff's employee emails, said he plans to monitor the email audits and push to make sure the results are made public.
Esther Lim, director of the Jails Project at the ACLU of Southern California, called McDonnell's initial reaction "a little passive."
"When you have someone high up in the administration sending off inappropriate emails, and the sheriff is slow to respond, that communicates to the line staff that it's a behavior that's OK, when it's not," Lim said.
The uproar echoes recent controversies in other cities. In San Francisco and Ferguson, Mo., police officials who sent racially derogatory emails or text messages were placed on leave or fired.
Angel's emails were sent in 2012 and 2013 when he was the No. 2 police official in Burbank. There, too, he had been brought in to reform an agency reeling from misconduct in its ranks, including allegations of brutality, racism and sexual harassment.
"I took my Biology exam last Friday," said one of the emails, which The Times obtained from the city of Burbank under the state's public records law. "I was asked to name two things commonly found in cells. Apparently 'Blacks' and 'Mexicans' were NOT the correct answers."
Another email ridiculed concerns about the racial profiling of Muslims as terrorism suspects. A third included the subject line "How dumb is dumb?" and listed 20 reasons "Muslim Terrorists are so quick to commit suicide," including "Towels for hats," "Constant wailing from some idiot in a tower" and "You can't wash off the smell of donkey."
Four of the emails contained strings of jokes that Angel received and then forwarded. A city spokesman said the other senders and recipients were redacted because they did not work for the city, and releasing their identities would be an invasion of privacy.
A fifth email was a short dialogue between Angel and another Burbank police official in which Angel asked what he called a trivia question: "How many virgins do Muslims get in heaven?"
Some who worked with Angel in Burbank defended him, calling him a respectful leader who comfortably interacted with different ethnic groups.
"I saw nothing but the highest levels of conduct," said Burbank City Councilman David Gordon.
Angel's departure will be a big loss for the sheriff, who as an outsider relied on him as a right-hand man to help sort out the 18,000-member department's inner workings.
"Tom Angel's career within the Sheriff's Department was extraordinary," said Brian Moriguchi, president of the union that represents sheriff's supervisors. "He came back to help the sheriff rebuild from the previous administration's corruption and other problems, and he was well-intentioned and well-respected. But that doesn't excuse his conduct, either."
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