PHOENIX — The majority of members on County Attorney Allister Adel’s internal diversity committee resigned from their posts this week because of how she responded to an alleged blackface scandal inside the office.
ABC15 obtained emails outlining why four MCAO employees quit the office’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
The internal messages said Adel and her executive staff have blocked many of the committee’s efforts and rejected further plans to address the controversy surrounding Chief of Staff Candice Copple.
Copple, who is white, was accused of being in blackface during a church event several years ago — an allegation she denied.
“(Committee members) and I are deeply committed to improving equity in the criminal justice system, but the office has stymied, delayed, or put off indefinitely too many of the DEI Committee’s efforts,” said prosecutor Stephanie Low, who was a committee vice-chair.
Low added, “I can’t continue to work on an initiative that I feel is not meaningfully supported by the leadership in the office.”
Through a spokesperson, Adel released a written statement to ABC15. She did not address the concerns of the resigned members, but Adel said she was disappointed they quit and thanked them for their work.
[County Attorney Adel’s full statement is copied at the bottom of this report.]
Committee member John Byrd, a Black MCAO detective, was more specific in his resignation note and criticized Adel specifically.
“Vice-Chair Byrd took the time to address the Executive team from an African American perspective and shared a personal/in-depth view of the historical trauma this incident excavated, including the daily ‘mask’ many African Americans (and other contracted minority groups) put on before they step out of their respective homes,” Byrd wrote in his email to top staff.
After that September meeting, he said top MCAO officials blocked a scheduled conversation for Nov. 17 between Copple and himself that would apparently be open to other staff.
He continued, “Based on the conversation and shared ‘lived experience’ expressed during the meeting on September 30, 2021, how could the Executive team and/or County Attorney Adel deny MCAO employees the opportunity to witness a ‘real conversation’ designed to bring healing, understanding and closure to this issue.”
Byrd wrote that conversation was “disregarded and repudiated,” which was “trouble-some” to the committee members.
Before the scandal over the photo, the county attorney’s office was already mired in a major crisis over racism and bias.
MCAO prosecutors and Phoenix police colluded to falsely charge dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters. A months-long ABC15 investigation exposed the agencies who invented a fake gang and then claimed protesters were members.
Adel denied specific knowledge of the plan to charge protesters as a gang.
Following a pair of outside investigations into the false protest charges, including one paid for by MCAO, the county attorney still claimed to be unaware of her top staff’s involvement.
In September, Copple released the following written statement through a spokesperson about the photo.
In 2015, I participated in a re-enactment depicting a historical event in my ancestors' lives,” Copple’s statement said. “In the 1830's time period we were portraying, mobs would often put mud on their face to conceal their identity. Taken out of context, I can see how this picture could be misconstrued. While not intended as blackface, I am sensitive to the history of black Americans and I am deeply sorry to anyone who may have found this photo offensive. I didn’t realize the picture was still on my personal Facebook page and it has been removed.
County Attorney Allister Adel’s full statement is below.
For the first time at the County Attorney’s Office, I created an employee committee to champion issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. Diversity issues for any organization are complex. Employee perspectives and priorities related to these matters are equally complex. It was important to me that input and collaboration from staff drive this effort. In all, nearly 100 employees have expressed interest in working on DEI initiatives.
A DEI founding employee committee was created in April of this year and was comprised of a chair and three vice chairs to lead these efforts. While I am disappointed that the vice chairs recently made the decision to step back from their roles, I am thankful for their contributions.
The chair of the committee and I remain committed to creating a more diverse and equitable workplace, as well as partnering with this community on DEI matters. Moving forward, this office is currently reviewing applications for a full-time, seasoned diversity professional to help lead these efforts. This person will be a part of my management team and a trusted advisor.
Over the past eight months, the DEI employee committee has championed several important initiatives. These include:
• Increasing MCAO’s involvement in minority bar organizations by funding employees’ dues to these organizations.
• Dedicating funding to sponsoring events in the community that celebrate diversity, including the Arizona Black Bar Association’s Annual Hayzel B. Daniels scholarship dinner on Nov. 5th.
• Ensuring communication efforts on behalf of the office are inclusive of the diverse communities and individuals we serve. Bi-lingual social media posts and celebration of milestone DEI events are a priority for this office.
• Receiving input from the DEI employee committee to ensure more inclusive office and prosecution policies.
• Conducting roundtable discussions to provide executive leadership with feedback on a variety of topics.
• Employee Resource Groups (ERG) have been created to foster inclusivity and provide spaces for employees to feel valued, understood, and share their valuable life experience with others. Examples include Jewish, Working Parents, Military, Grieving Parents, Native, Disability, Christian, and Hispanic Employee Resource Groups.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.