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Press Not Impressed With Police Complaints
While editorials and columns from two leading newspapers serving West County have found little sympathy for a threatened lawsuit alleging racism by Chief Magnus, the City Council has moved to retain a highly qualified investigator to do a thorough and fair job of examining the complainants’ allegations.

Raymond C. Marshall, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm of Bingham McCutchen was selected by City Manager Bill Lindsay and approved by the City Council last night. “It’s important that we move quickly and responsibly in this matter,” Lindsay said. “The people of Richmond deserve a thorough and objective third party investigation of the complaints. I am confident Mr. Marshall is the right person to lead this investigation – frankly, he has impeccable credentials.”

Everything I have seen in the past eleven months indicates that Chief Magnus has been hard-working and a positive influence on the City of Richmond. I value his contributions.

Everyone in the Police Department needs to recognize that, while these charges and a full investigation are important, our number one priority has to remain the safety and security of the community, and we must keep focused on that.

Is popular police chief guilty of racism, or of being too successful?
- Chip Johnson

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Accusations that Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus uttered racial slights about an African American member of his command staff have put a damper on what would otherwise be considered a pretty good first-year performance by the new chief.

The claims by a half-dozen black officers that Magnus once referred to a black supervisor as a "jigaboo" and allowed other white officers to make off-color remarks surprised city officials and neighborhood activists who are pleased with the changes Magnus has made. An attorney representing the officers has threatened a lawsuit.

"I think the prevailing opinion is that he's done pretty well. I think the community and the council and the city manager think he's doing a pretty good job," said Tom Butt, a City Council member. "This caught us all by surprise."

Magnus, 46, has vigorously denied engaging in such conversation.

"That's really outrageous. I've never heard anything like that even said jokingly," he told The Chronicle on Friday.

Since he's been chief, Magnus said, he has promoted two of the officers who are now accusing him of making racist comments.

On Monday, having had time to absorb the situation, Magnus was a bit more reflective.

"I was caught so off guard by this, but I believe it's more about power than race," he said.

Magnus' officers when he was chief of the Fargo, N.D., Police Department more often snickered about his nickname, "Mr. Diversity," behind his back.

While the threat of a lawsuit plays out, there is an overwhelming agreement among city officers, neighborhood and community activists that Magnus' sweeping reforms are changing the culture of the department -- and having a positive effect on the communities it serves.

"I think that most of the people who live in my neighborhood are happy with the work he's done," said Naomi Williams, president of the Pullman Neighborhood Council.

"He's bringing back community policing, he's assigned officers to represent the department at our neighborhood meetings and make reports. We get to know one another -- and that's a good thing," said Williams, who has been a neighborhood activist since the early 1970s.

Williams, who also serves on the Richmond Police Review Commission, said the Police Department has solved more than twice the percentage of homicides under Magnus' leadership than his predecessor -- a development she attributes directly to the improved relations between residents and officers.

While there is widespread belief in the department, and in the community, that the changes in the Police Department are having an impact, the changes have come slowly and parts of the city continue to struggle. The city's homicide toll stands at 42, one more than last year.

In September, a bloody feud between rival groups claimed the lives of more than a dozen people before community activists set up several tent-city encampments to put eyes on the street and calm the violence that had became ridiculous -- one of the victims was shot by a pallbearer at a funeral.

As city officials are awaiting an investigation of the allegations against Magnus, former longtime Police Commissioner Susan Geick, who left the panel last month after eight years, believes that the lawsuit threat and Magnus' shakeup of the department are inextricably linked.

"I think the problem with the lawsuit is because he's instituted huge changes in the way the place is managed and there will always be a group that is dissatisfied," she said. "He was brought in to change the culture of the department, and that's what's causing a great deal of discomfort."

City officials privately acknowledge that there have been racial tensions inside the Police Department going back a couple of decades, to when a group of rogue white officers was accused of terrorizing black citizens.

Much of the water-cooler conversations these days revolve around whether Magnus' promotions of two deputy chiefs since his arrival, one of them Latino and the other a woman, have fueled the ire of black officers. But by any measure other than the complaints the black officers have brought, Magnus' first year in Richmond has been an overwhelming success.

"Everything we've seen that the chief has done in the last 11 months indicates that he's been a hard-working and positive influence on the city of Richmond," said Leslie Knight, an assistant city manager. "We value his contributions to the department and the community. We look forward to a quick and thorough investigation to get to the bottom of it, and make changes if they are needed."

When he introduced himself to the community last year, there were skeptics, and I was among them. I believed that a former police chief from Fargo, N.D., would struggle to relate with a diverse population and police department.

Shows how much I know.

Council member Butt, a strident public orator and Web site commentator, put it succinctly.

"On one extreme, if everything they're saying is true, then Magnus is a raging racist who fooled us all. If not, then his accusers are a bunch of malcontents," Butt said.

Now I'm skeptical again, only this time I'm going to go with Magnus.

Chip Johnson's column appears in the Chronicle on Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at chjohnson@sfchronicle.com.

Seems like sour grapes

Posted on Fri, Dec. 15, 2006

WHEN CHRIS MAGNUS took over as Richmond police chief nearly a year ago, we predicted that he would run into opposition from an entrenched hierarchy grown all-too comfortable with the status quo.

People who are used to coasting in their jobs don't take too kindly to someone coming in telling them they're going to have to get off of their posteriors and start producing results. Then, demoting or transferring them when they don't.

Yet even we are surprised at the level to which some disgruntled Richmond Police Department managers seem willing to go, apparently to get back at Magnus for disrupting their cushy situations.

Six police captains and lieutenants are threatening to sue the city, claiming Magnus has fostered racism within the department. Their attorney claims that Magnus told one of his clients to "dance, jigaboo, dance" in front of other white officers. A charge Magnus says is an outright lie.

Standing in front of the Hall of Justice, attorney Christopher Dolan said that racism had affected his clients' abilities to do their jobs.

Let's forget, for a moment, that the job wasn't getting done before Magnus got here.

These are serious charges and we would urge City Manager Bill Lindsay, as he has said he would, to conduct a thorough and complete investigation.

Still, we can't help but be suspicious, based on what we know of the hardly inspiring police work that was done prior to Magnus' arrival.

Here's what we do know. Under the new Magnus regime, captains could no longer lounge around the department pretending to be busy with mundane tasks.

Magnus appointed two deputy chiefs to handle administration, creating a layer above the rank of captain.

Every captain suddenly had responsibility for a specific area of the city. That meant hitting the streets, along with the patrol officers, and coming up with strategies for reducing crime in the targeted zone. Kind of like a general commanding his troops.

The theory being that slackers would have nowhere to hide, exposed by the poor crime stats in their areas.

Richmond residents who are beside themselves over soaring homicide rates and runaway street crime were happy with the sweeping changes.

They felt as if finally, someone within the city was making a serious attempt to tackle what has become an epidemic of young black men killing young black men.

Magnus' regular appearances at crime scenes during the wee hours and his visits to victims' bereaved family members, convinced residents that he was a hands-on chief who wasn't going to sit in his department tower.

Based on their own experience, many residents and community leaders find the allegations of racism preposterous.

So do we. From here, the charges look more like sour grapes.

Officers say racism alive at station
Posted on Wed, Dec. 13, 2006
By Karl Fischer

An attorney representing six Richmond police managers threatening to sue the city said Wednesday that Chief Chris Magnus used racial slurs at least once against his clients, telling one to "dance, jigaboo, dance" for the amusement of white officers.

"These officers are distinguished officers, they are the cream of the crop. They seek a racially neutral working environment," attorney Christopher Dolan said in front of the Hall of Justice. "Racism in the police department affects their ability to do their jobs."

Magnus denied making any racist comments to the three captains and three lieutenants who plan to file a suit against the city in state Superior Court as soon as next week.

"The answer is no," Magnus said when asked whether he made the comment Dolan referenced. "I am surprised by the individuals involved, and I am surprised by what they are alleging because it is groundless."

News of the impending legal action comes at a time of rising anger and frustration in the department over unpopular personnel and policy moves that began soon after Magnus took the helm Jan. 17, becoming the department's first permanent police chief since 2003.

The six officers, all black men, claim Magnus, who is white, harassed them, denied them promotion opportunities and retaliated against them over their "race, association with other minorities and opposing racism and race-based conduct in the department," according to state Department of Fair Employment & Housing documents served to city officials Monday.

Those documents notified the city of an impending discrimination suit against the department, Magnus and Deputy Chief Lori Ritter. Dolan said Wednesday that he likely would file the suit next week.

"This was the last step for these officers. They had met for months with the city manager and the assistant city manager to resolve their complaints about job reassignments" and other problems, Dolan said. "But they were met by ears that were not only deaf, but unwilling to hear."

The six complainants represent more than one-third of the department's command staff: Capts. Cleveland Brown, Alec Griffin and Eugene McBride; and Lts. Michael Booker, Shawn Pickett and Arnold Threets.

Several of the officers approached by the Times declined to comment about the details, saying they wanted to preserve the integrity of their cases.

"We want to work in a racist-free environment," Threets said. "I just want to get back to work and do my job."

Pickett said later that he and the others involved second that sentiment. All six remain on the job.

Their allegations are sparsely detailed in the correspondence to the city from DFEH, but they apparently focus on direct personal interaction with Magnus and Ritter. Both received the right-to-sue notices Monday, as did City Hall.

"I believe the reasons (for the discrimination) are because of my race, association with other minorities and opposing racism and race-based conduct in the department and by my chief, the deputy chief and others," reads a passage included with every DFEH complaint. "There are other factors which will be discussed ... but cannot be stated here because of space constraints."

The DFEH complaints, most of which were filed in late November, did include small variations suggesting some of the specific conflicts.

McBride, for example, wrote that he "received negative comments on performance evaluation." Griffen wrote that he was "subject to demeaning conduct." Pickett and Threets wrote that they were victims of job-related retaliation.

All say they are victims of racial harassment and were denied promotion, though both Griffin and Booker were promoted to their current ranks by Magnus in May.

Dolan said Wednesday that those officers' promotions already were assured before Magnus arrived.

City Manager Bill Lindsay said the allegations took his office by surprise.

"We take charges like this very seriously, and our intent is to do a thorough third-party investigation because it is important to get the facts, get the truth," he said. "Everything I have observed since (Magnus) has been with the city is that he is an outstanding, hardworking individual, and he has my complete and unequivocal support."

City Councilman John Marquez also expressed surprise.

"I'm surprised and thoroughly disappointed by this action," he said. "This police chief has done good work. He came in here and made a lot of positive changes."

But the newly elected president of Richmond's chapter of the NAACP, Ken Nelson, said his organization supports the six officers "110 percent."

"I think the problems that exist within the police department are problems that need to be eradicated," Nelson said. "We're going to monitor this process. We hope the city will be much more responsive than it has been."

Since his arrival in Richmond from the Fargo, N.D., Police Department, Magnus has received praise for his neighborhood-friendly policing strategies and his personable style of community relations.

But within the department, the honeymoon ended long ago.

Command-staff grumbling became audible in May, when Magnus added two deputy chief positions above the rank of captain.

The move permitted Magnus to choose his own inner circle of advisers. It also reduced the relative power and authority of the department's captains.

Magnus promoted Ritter to one of the deputy chief positions, and Ed Medina leap-frogged a rank to fill the other. Two of the complainants -- Brown and McBride -- remained captains.

In a department where race relations are perpetually sensitive, the changes at the top were jarring to some. In 2005, when interim Chief Terry Hudson led the department, three of the four highest-ranking officers were black men.

By May of this year, 10 of 16 chief, captain and lieutenant positions were filled by black men. But the three most powerful positions were filled by a white man, a white woman and a Latino man.

"Some of the officers believe they were unfairly passed over for deputy chief, some were reassigned," Dolan said.

McBride supervises patrol in the department's southern district, while Brown now heads public safety at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, a contract position between the district and the department.

Griffin supervises patrol in the central district, and Booker now serves as a patrol watch commander. Magnus chose Pickett in June to run the investigations bureau. Threets headed the department's Professional Standards Unit until his abrupt transfer to patrol last week.

"I don't know why this happened," Magnus said. "I've been making changes to the department relative to selection processes and creating accountability; and some of these things are unsettling for some of the folks here."

The current conflict in the command staff comes at a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the department's direction among rank and file.

While popular with the public, the department's summerlong commitment to mandatory minimum staffing and geographic policing -- whereby officers staff the same patrol beats daily -- has worn on many because the department is understaffed by two dozen or more officers.

"Officers truly try to do the best that they can, but what concerns us is the exhaustion factor," said Detective Kevin Martin, president of the Richmond Police Officers Association.

A recent change to how the department selects detectives surprised and angered many officers, particularly black officers. Many signed up to work on homicide teams in November but were angered when, a few days after the sign-up deadline, Magnus instituted a committee process in place of one that gave the investigations lieutenant much discretion over who was selected.

Staff writer John Geluardi contributed to this article. Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@cctimes.com.