Racist E-mails Lead to Resignation of a Florida Police Chief

An embattled South Florida police chief — already serving a 30-day unpaid suspension for using city computers to share racist, tasteless Internet jokes with his command staff, including one E-mail suggesting President Obama should have been shot by his own honor guard — resigned late Tuesday.

A city investigation determined that Wilton Manors Police Chief Richard E. Perez distributed 86 messages with “inappropriate content” using the city’s E-mail system during a four-month period this spring and summer. According to a South Florida Times report published on its website yesterday, Perez was given a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum from City Manager Joseph Gallegos after an internal probe detected that Perez also violated the city’s leave policy. Later reports confirmed that Perez had resigned.

Perez’s resignation comes in the wake of reporting by veteran South Florida Times reporter Elgin Jones. Jones’ investigative work uncovering racist and offensive E-mails sent by city officials has been causing a stir in Wilton Manors, which abuts Fort Lauderdale, for more than two years. The weekly publication is the region’s most influential African-American community newspaper.

One E-mail from Perez’ account, sent on May 27 to his second in command, Capt. Dorris “Dee” Seibert, contained a short audio file in which a man with a pronounced African-American dialect delivers a cheerful greeting. “Good mornin’ ma’am! And iddn’t it a lovely morning?” to which a white-sounding woman replies, “Up yours, nigger!”

Another, sent by Perez on July 21 – entitled, “Urban schools are finally starting to teach practical math that these kids can use in real-world situations!” – abounded with racial stereotypes demeaning blacks and Hispanics: “Lajames has an AK-47 with a 200-round clip. He usually missed 6 of every 10 shots and he uses 13 rounds per drive-by shootin. How many mofos can Lajames ice on a drive-by before he gotta reload? … Leroy has 2 ounces of cocaine. If he sells an 8 ball to Antonio for $320 and 2 grams to Juan for $85 per gram, what be the street value of the rest of his shit? … Dwayne pimps 3 ho's. If the price is $85 per trick, how many tricks per day must each ho turn to support Dwayne's $800 per day Crack habit?” Six other “test questions” were included.

Obama was a frequent target of the jokes and insults traded among Perez and his subordinates. One E-mail to Perez from Sgt. Peter Bigelsen read, “I sat, as did millions of other Americans, and watched as the government under went a peaceful transition of power a year ago.  At first, I felt a swell of pride and patriotism while Barack Obama took his oath of office. However, all that pride quickly vanished as I later watched 21 Marines, in full dress uniform with rifles, fire a 21-gun salute to the President. It was then that I realized how far America's military had deteriorated. Every damn one of them missed the bastard.”

Another e-mail Perez forward to his command staff on July 23 said, “A little boy said to his mother, ‘Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white.’ His mother replied, ‘Don't even go there, Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!’”

All of the available samples of Perez’s E-mails had a singular political slant – against liberals in general and Obama specifically.  They ranged from the mildly funny – “Q: What was the most positive result of the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ program? A: It took 95% of the Obama bumper stickers off the road.” (E-mail of April 21; joke attributed to David Letterman) –  to mean-spirited: An E-mail with the subject line, “Stupid is as stupid does,” contained a photograph purportedly showing Barack and Michelle Obama at a White House ceremony saluting with their left hands over their hearts.  (Stupid, in that case, might better apply to anyone who believed the doctored photograph was genuine: Snopes.com and other urban-legend sites busted the hoax by turning up the unaltered original photo, and others taken at the same time, showing the Obamas saluting correctly.)

Perez also distributed at least one solicitation for political support: An E-mail sent out July 22 appealed for support for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit members of Congress from exempting themselves from laws they pass.

Perez’s auto-signed E-mails included a disclaimer of which Perez apparently failed to take note: "NOTE:  Florida has a very broad public records law. Most written communications to or from local officials regarding City business are public records and are available to the public and media upon requests.  Your e-mail communications may therefore be subject to public disclosure."

Gallegos on Sept. 17 suspended Perez for 30 days without pay and ordered the chief to undergo racial and cultural sensitivity training. According to Gallegos’ investigative report, Perez sent 86 E-mails with “clearly derogatory, culturally insensitive and … racially inappropriate content” during a 16-week period from April through August. Gallegos wrote that Perez apologized for his conduct and admitted he had “no excuses” for it.

On Sept. 23, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist removed Perez from his seat on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.

Perez was contrite in a late-September press conference in which he discussed his suspension – although he insisted that he viewed, collected and forwarded examples of racial insensitivity and political satire in popular media only for use in a training class on stereotyping, ethics and diversity he teaches at Broward College. He said he forwarded some jokes and insults to Seibert to see if she felt it was appropriate for the class.  When Perez acknowledged his inappropriate behavior during the press conference, he referred to using city computers to receive and forward the material – although, when asked if his behavior would have been acceptable had he used his personal computer, Perez said, “No.”

At that time, Perez asked for a second chance. “Some e-mails that I received from friends, and [I] sent them back to some friends, were political satire. And I inappropriately used the city’s computer system, the Internet. I really should know better.  It was not racially motivated. And I let my citizens down in my city, and that’s why I wanted to apologize.”

At the time, Perez anticipated returning to duty. “I am deeply apologetic. I am going to do everything I can when I get back to work to have learned from this experience, to make myself a better person. … All I’m asking for is a second chance to go back and show the community that I did make some mistakes. I should not have done this.”

Perez, who previously served 24 years with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, earned $115,544 as Wilton Manors’ police chief.  About 13 percent of Wilton Manors’ population of roughly 13,000 is black. The city is also heavily Democratic, and has a reputation of being gay-friendly.

Two years earlier, Jones had exposed another Wilton Manors employee, then-Assistant Community Services Director Ana Barnes, using city computers to mail out  racially derogatory material. Gallegos demoted Barnes, among other reasons, for circulating a document on the city’s E-mail system that contained “clearly derogatory, culturally insensitive and racially charged content” – almost the exact wording he would later use with Perez.

Perez also is under investigation for allegations of perjured testimony in an unrelated 2007 civil case between a former Fort Lauderdale police officer and the local Fraternal Order of Police union.