Troubling words from Johnston County sheriff

What's most troubling about the slurs Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell flung at Hispanics in a recent newspaper article is that they came so easily to him, and he felt so comfortable publicly expressing them.

He apologized, and that's good. But it won't lessen the impact those comments have coming from that county's chief law enforcement official. The words were insulting and stereotypical. But beyond that, they foster doubts about the sheriff's – and his department's – willingness to apply the law fairly when it comes to Hispanic residents.

The implications can be significant. When residents don't trust law enforcers to be fair and impartial, it makes crime prevention and crime solving harder.

Sheriff Bizzell says it wasn't his intention to make “broad statements that reflected on the legal and law-abiding Hispanic population.” He said the comments came as a result of his anger over a fatal wreck involving a drunken driver, who was Latino.

But the comments had no relationship to drunken driving by Hispanics. They were nothing more than a visceral intolerant rant: “Mexicans are trashy,” immigrants “breed like rabbits.”

To be sure, others share Sheriff Bizzell's views. Many express them privately; some express them publicly. We hope for better from law enforcement officers – in public and in private. Their words can influence the views and actions of others – most importantly the law enforcers they supervise. Deputies who heard the sheriff's reckless words might assume he condones prejudices that affect how His-panics are viewed and treated.

Sheriff Bizzell has some bridge-building to do in his community, especially among the “law-abiding, legal” Hispanics he said he had no wish to offend. But he also has work to do with his own officers.

His deputies need to hear clearly and unequivocally that, despite his own publicized words, he expects them to treat Hispanics with the respect all residents deserve. And he must make clear that if they do otherwise, they will face substantive consequences. Without those actions, Sheriff Bizzell's apology will ring hollow.