A Los Angeles County sheriff's candidate who is one of the department's highest-ranking officials was chastised for using a mock ethnic accent during a joke phone call played at a retirement party, internal sheriff's records show.
In the 2010 incident, a recording of which was obtained by The Times, Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold calls a station watch commander and appears to imitate a vaguely South Asian accent. He criticizes the watch commander while mispronouncing words in a sing-songy rambling rant, according to the recording.
Both Hellmold and the watch commander told The Times the recording was not a prank call but rather a rehearsed skit they later played at the watch commander's retirement party. They acknowledged the call was recorded while on-duty and using their county phone lines.
The gag call starts out with Hellmold asking for "the watching commander," a play on the traditional title of watch commander. In accented English, Hellmold says: "Deputy sheriff don't care about the community….That's why I call now."
Back in 2010, when The Times first inquired about the call, a sheriff's spokesman mostly defended the incident, calling it a "prearranged sound bite" that "did not influence public safety."
But records reviewed by The Times show that after the newspaper's inquiry, Hellmold received "documented counseling" in connection with the joke. Hellmold's boss at the time wrote "you disguised your voice in a manner that sounded representative of another ethnic group."
A panel that evaluates racial insensitivity issues "determined that it contained equity issues that do not rise to the level of a formal equity investigation," a supervisor said. However, according to the letter, "the call was ill-conceived and, while lacking malicious intent, had the potential to cause embarrassment to the Department."
In a recent interview, Hellmold, who is white, acknowledged that the recording may have been immature but said it was not racist in any way.
As a candidate for sheriff, Hellmold has emphasized his ties to ethnic communities. He formally announced his candidacy at a storied African American church in South L.A. – and has won the endorsement of civil rights activist Connie Rice. He often emphasizes community policing and the need for law enforcement to bring the county's ethnic communities into the fold.
On Friday, Hellmold's campaign spokesman said the candidate "certainly meant no disrespect" with the gag, "and regrets if anyone may have taken offense."
In his first three months in the race, Hellmold has led all candidates in fundraising.
At the time of the call, Hellmold, then a station captain, said the voice he used was simply meant as a disguise, not an ethnic accent, South Asian or otherwise. He pointed to the caller's moniker, "Robert," as evidence.
"I don't know anybody of that race named Robert," he said. "I don't know where you're deriving any nationality."