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Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Muslim leaders announce partnership in wake of racist emails

Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Muslim leaders announce partnership in wake of racist emails
Tom Angel forwarded offensive emails during his time as a deputy chief with the Burbank Police Department. (Raul Roa / Burbank Leader)

After meeting with Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Wednesday, Muslim leaders said they are ready to work with law enforcement officials to move past the racist emails forwarded by one of McDonnell’s top aides.

The aide, Tom Angel, resigned last weekend under pressure from those Muslim leaders and other civil rights activists.

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Angel's emails, which included derogatory stereotypes of Muslims, blacks, Latinos, women and others, were published last week by The Times.

At Wednesday's meeting, which was attended by McDonnell and dozens of high-level commanders, the Muslim leaders agreed to work with sheriff's officials on a "diversity task force."

The partnership will "alleviate fears from the larger society about Islam and fears in our own community about law enforcement," said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In addition to strengthening relationships between law enforcement and Muslim communities, sheriff's officials said they would try to increase the diversity of their workforce.

Of about 9,500 sworn deputies, most are white or Latino, with 9% black and 7% Asian. About a dozen are Muslim, according to Sgt. Mike Abdeen, who heads the Muslim Community Affairs Unit.

African American civil rights leaders had also reacted strongly to the emails, calling for Angel to be disciplined or fired. Sheriff's officials agreed to randomly audit employees' emails for offensive language after some of the leaders called on them to do so.

In a written statement, sheriff's officials said Wednesday's meeting was the first of many they will hold with community leaders in the coming months.

"The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is engaged in a committed effort, currently underway, to meet with over 30 community groups throughout the County of Los Angeles to share thoughts and ideas about how we can improve understanding of our many diverse cultures," the statement said.

The Sheriff’s Department has long cultivated relationships with Muslim communities. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, then-Sheriff Lee Baca reached out to Muslim leaders to express his support for them, recalled Haroon Manjlai, a spokesman for the greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Those strong ties were threatened by the emails, which Angel sent from his work account during his time at the Burbank Police Department in 2012 and 2013.

Four of the emails contained strings of jokes that Angel received and then forwarded. 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?"

"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 email 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."

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Angel 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.

McDonnell initially emphasized that the emails were sent while Angel was employed elsewhere and said the incident would be a "teaching moment" for Angel to explain the negative consequences of forwarding some types of emails.

But as the outcry from community leaders grew, McDonnell accepted Angel's resignation, which was announced by the Department on Sunday.

Angel, a longtime sheriff's official, went to Burbank in 2010 as part of a team of outsiders charged with reforming the Police Department.

McDonnell, who was elected in November 2014 on a reform agenda, brought Angel back to the sheriff's office as his chief of staff, relying on him to navigate the 18,000-member department and manage a wide array of projects.

"This incident is not reflective of the department and its history," Manjlai said. "The sheriff has truly made an opportunity out of this unfortunate incident."

Umar Hakim, executive director of the ILM Foundation, said he hopes the renewed partnership between the Sheriff's Department and the Muslim community will include an understanding of the "new Los Angeles," which includes some economically revitalized areas but growing problems with drugs and poverty.

At local mosques, some worshippers are suspicious of law enforcement because of concerns that they will be profiled as terrorists, said Ahmed Azam, a board member of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

"There is a fear factor in the community," Azam said. "We can bridge the gap by bringing law enforcement to mosques."

As the Muslim leaders left the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles after the meeting, Abdeen embraced Azam and said parting words in Arabic.

Abdeen, who was born in Jerusalem, has headed the Muslim Community Affairs Unit since its inception under Baca nine years ago. He and two sheriff's deputies visit mosques, attend community events and serve as liaisons, in addition to educating their colleagues about Islam.

"I pray with them, talk to them, have lunch with them," Abdeen said.

Twitter: @cindychangLA

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