Vail-area sheriff’s office steps in it again with ‘Jewish descent’ release

The Vail Daily newspaper last week took the brunt of a well-deserved public beat-down for publishing a sheriff’s department press release in which a witness to a home break-in in Edwards described a suspect as being of “Jewish or Eastern European descent.”

The now properly edited staff report is still on the paper’s Web site, but the offending original version made it into print Wednesday, prompting an apology from self-described Jewish American managing editor Matt Zalaznick in Thursday’s paper and a flood of justifiably outraged letters to the editor in Friday’s paper.

The press release issued by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department and printed by the Daily went on to relay the witness description of the suspect as having “dark hair, large nose, pierced ears, narrow face and eyes that were close together.”

Zalaznick admitted the paper screwed up: “We felt there was a difference between saying that all Jewish people look a certain way and that one alleged burglar in Edwards, Colorado looked Jewish. The former is truly reprehensible, the latter still offensive, but a result of sloppy editing rather than any individual or institutional bigotry.”

But while the question of institutional bigotry may be somewhat new to the Vail Daily — a resort-town paper covering a largely homogeneous population (although immigration issues are a constant source of tension) — it is not a new question for the sheriff’s department.

In fact, the question of racial – not religious — profiling came up during the Kobe Bryant case in 2003, when the National Basketball Association superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers was charged with raping a worker at a resort hotel near Edwards. Charges were later dropped, and Bryant settled a civil suit filed by the woman.

This from a story on the racial climate in Eagle County in the Aug. 21, 2003, edition of the L.A. Weekly:

“A 15-year-old racial-profiling lawsuit against the sheriff’s department for traffic stops on Interstate 70 has been dredged up by the media as evidence of ingrained bias in a cultural backwater where a fair trial for Bryant will be impossible.

“’I had people telling me it’s only a matter of time before they bring that up and do the whole Mark Fuhrman thing,’” 20-year former Sheriff A.J. Johnson says of the suit the county ultimately settled for $800,000 in 1996. Johnson hotly denies his home of nearly 30 years is a racist place…’”

The new sheriff in town? Joe Hoy, who brought the charges against Bryant. That was six years ago, and Hoy is still in office. Clearly he needs to do some updated sensitivity training for whoever churns out his press releases … and whatever supervisor approves them. And the local paper, presumably, will be more careful about simply printing them verbatim.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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