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Offensive Emails from a Top Official Put L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on the Spot

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Outrage over emails sent by a top aide mocking Muslims, blacks, Latinos, women and others is presenting Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell with a serious test as he attempts to reform his troubled agency.

On Thursday, more civil rights groups called for the sheriff to fire or discipline the aide, Tom Angel, after the emails were published by The Times this week.

A person who made light of those stereotypes is unfit for a top position at an agency that polices the very groups he mocked, some civil rights leaders said.

But McDonnell has said he has no immediate plans to discipline his chief of staff because the emails date from Angel’s time with the Burbank Police Department and were an “uncharacteristic act” that do not reflect Angel’s usual good character and judgment.

“Although there is no doubt that such instances, if occurring within the Sheriff’s Department, would result in disciplinary action, there is also no doubt that Chief Angel understands and respects that fact,” the sheriff said in a statement.

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 departure would mean the loss of a trusted aide who helps McDonnell navigate the Sheriff’s Department’s huge bureaucracy and who has a hand in a broad array of projects.

As a chief, Angel is an at-will employee and could be fired or demoted without the civil service protections of lower-ranking sworn personnel.

Jokes like the ones Angel forwarded from his work account feed into a larger atmosphere of racial bias, which in turn can foster the mistreatment of minority groups in the jails and on the streets, said Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and director of police practices for the ACLU of California. The organization has called on Angel to step down or be fired.

 “These emails perpetuate the culture that McDonnell was elected to reform, and he has a choice whether to take action and send a signal that racial and religious bias won’t be tolerated in the Sheriff’s Department or to look the other way and send a signal that this behavior is OK,” Bibring said.

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. On Thursday, he did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The 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?”

Minnie Hadley-Hempstead, president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People Los Angeles, called for Angel’s dismissal.

“We do not want an apology. We want him out,” Hadley-Hempstead said.

The civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles also wants McDonnell to fire Angel.

Civil rights advocate Earl Ofari Hutchinson called on the Sheriff’s Department to audit all employee emails to see whether others are also sending offensive material. Expressing disappointment in Angel, which McDonnell has done, is not enough, and Angel should be reprimanded or disciplined, he said.

“You have a high-ranking sheriff’s official sending a message to the community that the only way that I deal with and know about African Americans and Hispanics is as prisoners, jailbirds, criminals, thugs and gangsters,” Hutchinson said.

Some Muslim groups are calling for sheriff’s deputies to receive cultural awareness training. The Muslim Public Affairs Council met with McDonnell on Monday and has set up another meeting with him for next week. A statement from the organization calling for disciplinary action against Angel also was signed by the HIV/AIDS advocacy group Bienestar, the African American community service group Brotherhood Crusade, the immigrant rights group CARECEN and the anti-bias group the California Conference for Equality and Justice.

In recent years, federal officials have stepped in to stop beatings by deputies in the jails and racially discriminatory policing practices in the Antelope Valley. More than a dozen sheriff’s officials, including Baca, have been convicted or pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the FBI's investigation into the jails.

Despite the scandal, Baca won praise during his 15 years as sheriff for building strong relationships with minority groups who said the Sheriff’s Department previously had mistreated them and ignored their concerns. Baca required his deputies to memorize a pledge to fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. And he created dozens of ethnic advisory committees, formalizing a pipeline between his office and the county’s many minority groups.

At a congressional hearing on homeland security in March 2010, Baca testified about the importance of strong ties with Muslim communities. When a congressman questioned why Baca attended fundraisers for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the sheriff defended his ties with the group and attacked the questioning as “un-American.”

Among Baca’s legacies was the Muslim Community Affairs unit, which was started in 2007 and consisted of several deputies whose job was to maintain relationships with Muslim residents and educate fellow deputies about Islam. The unit has continued its work under McDonnell.

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