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New Jersey sheriff steps down after uproar over racist remarks

The sheriff of New Jersey’s most populous county has resigned after an outcry over racist remarks he made about black people and the state’s attorney general, who is a Sikh.

Bergen County Michael Saudino and four undersheriffs resigned Friday. Gov. Phil Murphy said he will be choosing an interim sheriff for the northern New Jersey county of nearly 1 million residents.

The furor erupted this week after radio station WNYC posted audio clips of the sheriff’s remarks from a January discussion following Murphy’s inauguration.

The station said it obtained a secret recording of the remarks. Sound bites are on the station’s website, and local media, including CNN affiliates WABC and WCBS, have widely reported on the story.

WNYC said that the “source asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash, particularly against family members.” The station said the source passed along the taped conversation involving Saudino and two of the undersheriffs.

On the tape, Saudino said, “He talked about the whole thing,” referring to the governor’s inauguration speech. “The marijuana, sanctuary state … better criminal justice reform. … (I)n other words, let the blacks come in, do whatever the (expletive) they want, smoke their marijuana, do this, do that, and don’t worry about it. You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops.”

Saudino asserted that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, an adherent of the Sikh religion, was appointed because of “the turban” — the article of faith worn by people of that religion.

Officials swiftly called for the sheriff’s resignation. Saudino — who is white and a Democrat — apologized Thursday “for the insensitive recorded remarks” but indicated he would stay in the job, according to WABC.

He said he has “worked hard to successfully increase” the department’s diversity and intended to “treat everyone with the respect and dignity that is deserved by all.”

“These remarks are not representative of the person that I am and they are in no way consistent with the manner in which I have conducted my life personally and as a law enforcement professional with over 46 years of service to the residents of Bergen County.”

But on Friday, amid calls for him to step down, Saudino and the four undersheriffs resigned, the sheriff’s office said, without going into details about why.

CNN has reached out to Saudino for comment.

Officials greeted the resignations as a positive development.

“We can now begin the process of restoring faith in the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office after so much of it was so quickly eroded,” Murphy said.

“And we can begin the process of ensuring that the bigoted beliefs displayed by the former sheriff are not given shelter in any corner of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office — now or in the future.”

Grewal called the resignation “an important first step in repairing the relationship between the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office and the diverse communities it serves.”

“But our work does not stop there. The fact that a top official could make racist comments about the African-American community — and that no one in the room would challenge or correct him — raises serious concerns.”

Grewal said the attorney general’s office started the Office of Public Integrity & Accountability “to help investigate violations of the public trust and to strengthen the public’s confidence in our political and criminal justice institutions. OPIA was designed precisely for incidents like this.”

He said the agency’s director and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office will see “whether there are deeper issues that warrant a wider investigation.”

The Sikh Coalition also weighed in on the controversy. In a statement, it called for “anti-bias and cultural awareness” training in the county.

“We are grateful that the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office can start rebuilding trust within the communities and repair the relationships that Michael Saudino has tarnished,” Sim J. Singh, senior policy and advocacy manager for the Sikh Coalition, said in the statement.

The four others who resigned are Executive Undersheriff George Buono, Undersheriff Robert Colaneri, Undersheriff Brian Smith and Undersheriff Joseph Hornyak, according to the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff’s Office Chief Kevin Pell will be the officer in charge of the department’s operations, and Sheriff’s Office Warden Steve Ahrendt will be the officer in charge of the county jail operations, pending the appointment of an interim sheriff.