The evolving ethics behind the L.A. e-mail scandal
Values & ethics
The resignation of a much-lauded police official in Los Angeles County is evidence of how standards for the private lives of public servants are rising. That's especially true for police departments now.
Tom Angel of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office had two different opinions of what made a funny joke – one for the online world and another for the outside world.
His belief that a public official could keep those two separate came crashing down Monday when he resigned.
The incident, which involved messages containing derogatory jokes and comments about Muslims, Latinos, blacks, women, and others, serves as a fresh reminder of the access to public officials that technology has provided everyday Americans – and the heightened moral and political scrutiny that comes with such access.
But it comes with a twist. In his public life, Mr. Angel had won praise for his work with different ethnic groups. A former employer said he saw only “the highest levels of conduct,” while a union representative went so far as to call Angel’s career with the sheriff’s office “extraordinary,” according to reports.
Public servants – including law enforcement officials – are increasingly held to the highest standards of behavior both on- and off-duty, experts say. Considering the fraught relationship between many police departments and the public, that is only appropriate, they add.
“If one has the moral character that would engage in racial misconduct in private, that’s saying something about their integrity,” says Chris Dreisbach, an ethicist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Angel – who until Monday was chief of staff to Sheriff Jim McDonnell – forwarded the offensive e-mails when he worked as the No. 2 police official in nearby Burbank, Calif., in 2012 and 2013. Angel said he had not meant to offend anyone.
"Anybody in the workplace unfortunately forwards e-mails from time to time that they probably shouldn't have forwarded," he said to the Times. "I apologize if I offended anybody, but the intent was not for the public to have seen these jokes."
That in itself was a miscalculation, says Professor Dreisbach.
“You can’t separate your public world from your private world. Contemporary technology makes it harder for us to get away with anything,” he says.
His indulgence of what he might have seen as a bit of gallows humor was also a mistake, says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer. Certain types of humor are a common way of coping among law enforcement staff and officers, he adds.
“We laugh at things that other people wouldn’t joke about – it’s our way of surviving very sensitive and difficult issues,” he says.
“But it’s perception,” Dr. Burke adds, “and perception, as you know, becomes reality. The public now has reason to say, ‘Gee, do you really think this way?’ ”
“You don’t want to give even the perception [of misbehavior], particularly when there is already a strained relationship between the public and law enforcement,” he says.
The debate over where to draw the line between public and private lives is most lively in the political realm, and “technology has made this [discussion] more intense and complicated,” Dreisbach says.
Were Angel’s comments proof of his inability to protect the Constitution? “It’s not clear to me,” he adds.
What does suffer, however, is public trust. Muslim rights groups in Los Angeles criticized Angel as perpetuating dangerous stereotypes about their faith at a time when national political rhetoric and terrorist attacks at home and abroad have heightened fear and tension.
Still, the episode could serve a useful purpose here and beyond.
“It’s about culture,” Burke says. “Did we develop a culture of mistrust, a culture of prejudice?” And if so, then “we should be looking at ways to improve law enforcement and community relations. This [incident] will help in establishing policy and it will become a teachable moment to others, hopefully.”