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Sheriff can't brush aside racist emails sent by top aide

Sheriff can't brush aside racist emails sent by top aide
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell holds a press conference in May of 2015. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to lame apologies for misbehavior, it's hard to beat this Homer Simpson classic:

"But Marge, I swear to you, I never thought you'd find out!"

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In other words, it's not that I'm sorry I did it; I'm just sorry I didn't get away with it. That's what comes to mind when reading in The Times how Tom Angel, chief of staff to Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, responded to reports of racially and culturally derogatory emails that he sent around at his previous job.

"I apologize if I offended anybody," Angel said, "but the intent was not for the public to have seen these jokes."

In other words, he didn't think anyone would find out. But that's not really the point, is it? He was hired by the Burbank Police Department to help it overcome allegations of brutality, racism and sexism, and while in that position, he apparently thought it was acceptable to forward stupid jokes that mocked women, Muslims, African Americans and Latinos if no one found out. One joke suggested that Muslims "can't wash off the smell of donkey," and another went as follows: "I took my Biology exam last Friday. I was asked to name two things commonly found in cells. Apparently 'Blacks' and 'Mexicans' were NOT the correct answers."

But wait, Angel is Mexican American (as he notes in his own defense). So, presumably, making that last joke is OK, right? Hardly. He moved from Burbank to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, in which the former undersheriff was a Japanese American man with a history of involvement in a clique that a judge called white supremacist (Paul Tanaka was recently convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for blocking an FBI investigation into jail brutality). Racism has odd habits, but it's never OK. Being non-Anglo does not give a person license to bash anyone.

Imagine how a similar explanation would play with a deputy doing a stop-and-frisk and finding an illegal weapon. "But officer, the intent was not for you to have seen this!" That means the deputy should just let it go? No, it does not.

Stupid derogatory jokes aren't illegal, but neither are they OK at the highest levels of a law enforcement agency. Or even the patrol ranks. Consider the scandal at the San Francisco Police Department, where racist and homophobic texts among officers have come to light. How can patrol officers be disciplined for such texts if similar conduct from superior officers results in little more than shrugged shoulders? That would not be a good message to send to a Sheriff's Department in desperate need of strong examples at the top.

Otherwise, Tanaka and former Sheriff Lee Baca might have successfully defended themselves by declaring, "But your honor, we swear, we never thought you'd find out."

We did find out. Their sentencing dates are approaching. So how will McDonnell deal with Angel, and what kind of message will his decision send?

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