Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca during a news conference about a year… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
A commander in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was disciplined after his phone rang during a meeting with top brass. But it wasn't failing to put his phone on silent that raised eyebrows. It was the ring tone.
Cmdr. Paul Pietrantoni, one of Sheriff Lee Baca's hand-picked jail reformers, was meeting with other top supervisors when his personal cellphone played "The Oriental Riff" — accompanied by a mock, stereotypical Asian voice saying: "Hello, you pick up phone, you pick up phone."
"It went off for a second. I turned it off," Pietrantoni recalled.
But then the commander apparently made matters worse, telling those present, "Oh, that must be Mr. Tanaka calling me," referring to Paul Tanaka, the department's second in command, who is Japanese American.
Afterward, one of the commander's colleagues reported the incident and an investigation was opened. Pietrantoni said he was recently issued a verbal reprimand.
In an interview Monday with The Times, Pietrantoni called the supervisor who reported him "a sweet lady" but said, "If somebody takes that as racist, there's something wrong with you."
"I know in her heart she totally regrets what she did," he said.
Pietrantoni said he was reprimanded for the ring-tone incident, for cursing during the meeting and for a story he told colleagues about trying to placate a Jewish inmate who was refusing to come out of his cell unless he had a yarmulke. Pietrantoni said he crafted a yarmulke, a skullcap worn by some Jews, out of a milk carton to satisfy the inmate. As he told his colleagues the story, he added that he would have sung the chorus of "Fiddler on the Roof" if that would have gotten the inmate out of his cell peacefully.
Pietrantoni defended his conduct. He said the ring tone had been put on his phone by his daughter's fiance, who is Asian American.
He said making the yarmulke was a way to do a so-called cell extraction — frequently a violent task — peacefully. But referring to questions Monday about the incident, he said, "The Times didn't like my outside-the-box thinking so I'm going to go back to the old way" of doing cell extractions.
The comment about "Fiddler on the Roof," he said, was just a joke, adding: "I'm the most anti-racist person in the world.... My two best friends in the whole world are Jews from New York."
Pietrantoni said word of his comments got out because there is jealousy brewing internally about his recent promotion to commander. "Everybody wants a piece of me, I'm the new topic," he said.
"You're going to help the heathens do their job," he told a Times reporter.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to comment about the matter, citing state confidentiality rules on personnel discipline.