Closing Arguments Continue in Richmond Police Department Racism Trial

Seven African-American officers claim they faced racial harassment and discrimination from Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus soon after he was hired in 2006.

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    Defense attorneys said the officers saw a lawsuit as a chance to oust Chief Chris Magnus, who wanted to change the "buddy system" culture.

    Attorneys gave opposing summaries today of the allegations against the city of Richmond, its police chief and his former second-in-command in a race discrimination lawsuit brought by seven top-ranking African-American police officers.

    Today marked the second day of closing arguments in the three-month civil trial in Contra Costa County Superior Court that has featured testimony from several top-ranking Richmond police officers and city staffers. Stephen Jaffe, who represents six of the plaintiffs, began closing arguments Tuesday.

    All seven plaintiffs claim they faced racial harassment and discrimination from Chief Chris Magnus soon after he was hired in 2006 and from his appointee, Deputy Chief Lori Ritter.

    Both have denied the allegations. The plaintiffs claim the city did nothing to prevent the harassment and that they endured retaliation after reporting the alleged offenses.

    Jonathan Matthews, who represents one of the plaintiffs, Lt. Cleveland Brown, argued today that Brown's career and personal life have declined considerably due to the defendants' actions.

    Those alleged offenses include racist comments made to and about Brown by Magnus and Ritter, including one instance in which Ritter allegedly told Brown to tap-dance for a group of white officers and another in which he claimed Magnus cracked an imaginary whip and said, "Dance, jigaboo, dance".

    In addition, Brown claims that Magnus bypassed him for promotions and transferred him to a less desirable position working as a police liaison with local schools due to his race.

    The lieutenant also alleged that after reporting the racial discrimination to the city, Magnus retaliated by refusing to give him a timely work evaluation, among other punitive actions.

    "It is up to you to measure how much he's suffered over these past six years," Matthews told the jury today.

    The attorney said the city furthered Brown's suffering by failing to stop the harassment and by allegedly siding with Magnus after the plaintiffs' lawsuit was filed.

    "While the Richmond Police Department was figuratively burning down because of racial divisions, the city simply watched," Matthews said.

    Defense attorneys Art Hartinger and Geoff Spellberg painted a different picture of police department relations today, saying that the plaintiffs saw a lawsuit as a chance to oust Magnus, who sought to change the "buddy system" culture perpetuated by the plaintiffs.

    Hartinger said the prosecution did not prove Jaffe's claims that the case is about "racial hatred" or that Ritter "is the textbook definition of a racist."

    "You saw false charges of racism born out of opportunism against Chief Magnus and Lori Ritter," Hartinger told the jury today.

    Instead of proving that either defendant discriminated against the plaintiffs, Hartinger said, evidence shows the plaintiffs made a power play against Magnus, who wanted to revamp the department's approach to community policing and to hold commanding officers accountable.

    "It was these changes that prompted the resistance," Hartinger said.

    He reiterated one of the defense's central arguments that many of the plaintiffs pitted themselves against Magnus from day one, feeling threatened when they realized he planned to change the status quo.

    The defense attorneys said Magnus also promoted diversity within the department, contradicting the plaintiffs' claims of his racism.

    In fact, the chief has promoted more women and minorities within the department than any other chief in the department's history, Hartinger said.

    If anything, it was the plaintiffs who prevented minorities'bpromotions in the department, the attorney said.

    In one instance, one of the plaintiffs, Lt. Arnold Threets, pulled a black candidate out of an interview for an investigative services position because his promotion would contradict the plaintiffs' portrayal of Magnus as a racist, Hartinger said.

    He also said the plaintiffs' claims lack credibility since the officers clearly conspired against Magnus and Ritter just months after the chief joined the department.

    Hartinger said the officers rushed to hire attorneys after a comment the chief made during a May 2006 meeting asking whether Juneteenth -- a holiday commemorating the end of slavery -- was "another holiday for shooting people".

    Magnus testified during the trial that he was genuinely unaware of the holiday and made the comment during a meeting discussing violence in Richmond during Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

    Months later, during a command staff retreat in the fall of 2006, Hartinger said, some of the plaintiffs suddenly verbally attacked Ritter, accusing her of being a racist, according to testimony from Ritter and at least two other officers who attended the meeting.

    At that point, Hartinger said, the plaintiffs had already "lawyered up" and wanted to prod racial divisions within the department.

    Then, rather than following the department's policy of addressing any perceived harassment with their superiors, the plaintiffs waited until the last minute to bring their concerns to the city via the lawsuit, Hartinger said.

    Spellberg told the jury that the prosecution had not shown the defendants' behavior meets the legal standard of harassment in the workplace that is "outrageous conduct as it exceeds all bounds of decency usually tolerated by a decent society."

    Closing arguments are expected to continue Thursday, with rebuttals from the prosecution.