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Temecula Mayor Resigns Amid Uproar Over Email About Police Killings

2020-06-06 00:57:36
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The mayor of Temecula, Calif., resigned Thursday amid furor prompted by a widely shared email he sent to a constituent stating, “I don’t believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer.”

In an apology issued Wednesday, the mayor, James Stewart, said that the word “good” had been introduced in error by his voice-to-text translator, which he said he uses because he is dyslexic.

“Unfortunately I did not take the time to proofread what was recorded,” he wrote in a typo-filled post on his unofficial Facebook page, Temecula Stew, where he often communicated with residents of the predominantly white, conservative-leaning city of about 115,000 midway between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Mr. Stewart’s email came in response to a question that a constituent emailed him on Monday night, asking what the mayor and his team “are doing to end police violence in our community and the systemic racism in policing that is killing black people?”

In his apology, Mr. Stewart, who was elected in November 2016 and is known as Stew, denied that he had used the word “good” in his response, which he sent via an unofficial email account late Tuesday night.

“I absolutely did not say that,” he wrote in the post. “What I said is and I don’t believe there has ever been a person of color murdered by police, on context to Temecula or Riverside county. I absolutely did not say ‘good’ I have no idea how that popped up. Please forgive me for this egregious error.”

But the apology was not enough for many. Numerous residents — including several Temecula City Council members — dismissed it as shallow and said that beyond the word “good,” there were many issues with the email and with Mr. Stewart’s leadership.

Ronke Odubela, who posted a Change.org petition Thursday calling for a virtual town hall meeting to discuss longstanding issues in the community, said that blaming technology was a weak excuse.

“You should always proofread,” said Ms. Odubela, adding that it seemed to reveal “how he truly felt.” She also cited another sentence in Mr. Stewart’s Tuesday night email: “I have several good friends who are African-Americans, and they love living here because how safe it is for them and their families,” he wrote.

“‘Oh, I’m not a racist,’ cause he has quote unquote black friends,” she said.

Though Temecula is often referred to as one of the safest cities in America, as a black woman who grew up there, she said, it rarely felt that way to her. She recalled watching the police arrest her two brothers outside a T.J. Maxx simply because someone had reported a black shoplifter.

She also recalled having a high school teacher call her dream of becoming a doctor unrealistic. “I’m currently in medical school,” she added.

Matt Rahn, a City Council member, agreed that Mayor Stewart needed to resign. “Whether it was an accident or not, it was simply unacceptable and our community deserves better,” he said.

Others, commenting in two Temecula Facebook forums, were more forgiving and did not feel that the mayor should step down. Dozens empathized with his struggle with dyslexia and how easy it is to send something incorrectly.

“Oye! Stew!!! I am SO SORRY this happened to you!!,” one woman wrote. “But a GREAT lesson and reminder for my dyslexic son!! I wish more people understood the SCOPE of dyslexia.”

Others defended other aspects of his message. “I don’t think he was trying to make the point that he has black friends; I think he was trying to explain they’ve expressed that they feel safe here,” wrote another woman in the same closed forum.

But to Abram Cerda, a documentary filmmaker in Temecula who was a co-author of the Change.org petition, these defenses exemplify the “kind racism” that he said had plagued the city for years.

“It’s a very common ideology in Temecula to refuse to believe that racism exists, so people don’t have to believe that they are part of it,” he said.

There is also a history of concrete police violence in surrounding Riverside County, said Denton Burr, who organized a march on Friday afternoon to Temecula City Hall.

The goal of Friday’s march, he said, was partly to introduce a petition demanding that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office reopen the case of Matthew Tucker, an 18 year-old black man killed in 2016 by officers in nearby Murrieta, when they responded to a call that he was suicidal.

On Thursday, shortly before Mr. Stewart resigned, Mr. Burr said, he received a text from the mayor asking if he could issue a public apology at Friday’s protest. He said he told him: “No, you can’t hijack what we’re doing. This is the moment for our voices to be heard.”

Less than an hour later, he said, he read the mayor’s formal resignation.

“Because actions speak louder than words, I will step down as your Mayor and City Council Member effective immediately,” Mr. Stewart wrote in the statement released by the city. “My typos and off-the-cuff response to an email on a serious topic added pain at a time where our community, and our country, is suffering. I may not be the best writer and I sometimes misspeak, but I am not racist.”

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