Whatever happened to due process? The following editorial condemning the illegal distribution of selectively edited video depositions is particularly important because it comes from Vernon Whitmore, publisher of the Globe and recently elected president of the West Coast Black Publishers Association. What is even more interesting is that Whitmore has broken with the strident BAPAC, on which he served as a board member and vice-president.
Whitmore’s editorial follows, and more Globe coverage can be found at http://globenewspapers.com/main5.htm.
Taken at face value, a DVD with deposition excerpts being distributed to the black community by local NAACP President Ken Nelson is damaging to the defendant, Police Chief Chris Magnus, in a case addressing racism within the Richmond Police Department. The question that begs asking is what Nelson plans to do beyond inciting distrust of the men and women in the Richmond Police Department. Should we storm the courthouse? Should we be gearing up for something?
BAPAC (Black American Political Action Committee) wants the mayor, the city manager and the City Council to take action and points to $1.4 million it says the city has paid in legal fees to fight the suit. What action will BAPAC take? They are a political action group — was their purpose for sending an alert to their email list to politicize the situation? After all, it is an election year.
Should the city create its own version of the DVD so it too can include what makes its case look good? Is this the way justice should be dealt in Richmond?
Is the chief being tried by the community or by the courts? What was Nelson’s motive? According to City Manager Bill Lindsay, the judge asked that the depositions not be distributed while the case was still being tried. Richmond police officers are exercising their right to bring suit against their department head. The justice system with all of its imperfections still allows them to address their grievances. It’s odd that the NAACP would take action without responsible leadership and a plan to benefit the community.
Racism is ugly business — its affect on African-Americans and our communities will take a long time to finally fade away. It’s also a two-way street; those who have been discriminated against can discriminate back as viciously as those who did the damage in the first place. The DVD has created little more than a reaction within the black community, one that minimizes all of us.
Being black in America is still difficult because we carry so much baggage — remnants of a brutal slave system that went beyond physicality, for it penetrated the way we process and interpret our environment and the people with whom we interact. We associate and measure words against a host of racially charged memories and situations that caused a tremendous amount of pain and injustice. On the other hand, there are elements within our community that deserve scrutiny and that continue to harbor prejudice.
The Globe believes that citizen committees that distribute incendiary excerpts of depositions prior to litigation do so at great risk to the broader community. In the South, it was common practice to downplay due process and to vilify blacks through community organizations. We hope this is not a tactic that local organizations have adopted, because it flies in the face of rights for which we fought long and hard. It is not the complaint of this trial that is in trouble; rather, we object to the reaction of community members who would trample on the civil rights we hold so dear.
For additional coverage, see the following Contra Costa Times story:
Racism lawsuit, DVD open old wounds in Richmond Police Department
By Karl Fischer
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 03/05/2010 07:13:08 PM PST
Updated: 03/05/2010 07:13:10 PM PST
RICHMOND — Even today, some honest people in Richmond would sooner spit at a police officer than dial 911.
They remember racist officers from decades past, with their handlebar mustaches and thinly veiled hatred, their batons and their dogs. They remember two police killings, and the accompanying $3 million payout in federal court in 1983.
Time and progress healed some wounds. But a video released by a group of black police managers embroiled in a long-running discrimination suit against the department threatens to rip the cap off decades of bottled-up fear and suspicion of Richmond police.
The two-hour DVD, circulating by the dozens around town, evokes the bad old days at length, and has footage of current Chief Chris Magnus and retired Deputy Chief Lori Ritter appearing to admit racist malfeasance during sworn court depositions.
The city claims the video was skillfully edited to distort actual testimony, and a federal judge angrily ordered it quashed last week. But the recording clarifies for many an uncomfortable likelihood about the present-day Police Department: Somebody is lying.
"I am extremely disappointed in Chief Magnus, and also in the city manager (Bill Lindsay) for allowing the situation to reach this point," said former Councilman Jim McMillan, member of the Black American Political Action Committee of Contra Costa County. "I viewed the whole two hours, and I am appalled. It reminds me of the difficulties we had in the late '70s and early '80s with the Police Department."
But McMillan, like many black leaders, struggles to reconcile the image of a mean-spirited cracker painted by the plaintiffs with the proof of their own eyes.
His supporters say Magnus has fallen victim to a slow-motion coup because of his attempt to make upper-level management conform to his progressive, community-oriented plan for the department. It involves change, and not everyone buys in.
"I think Chris Magnus is probably Richmond's best police chief of all time. He has compassion for the community, and he's bringing professionalism to the department," said community activist Corky Booze, who is black. "What has this chief done that makes him a victim of this malicious suit, that hadn't already been taken care of by two (previous) black police chiefs, a black City Council and three black city managers? The answer is that they can't control the chief. He's independent."
Federal gag order
The debate simmered for years about the out-of-town chief plucked out of Fargo, N.D., in 2006. Don't be fooled, cautioned one-third of Magnus' command staff when they sued in March 2007, all black men with horror stories to tell. Attorney Chris Dolan stood on the steps of the Police Department in December 2006 and told a crowd of reporters that Magnus once asked one of his clients to "dance, jigaboo, dance" for the amusement of white officers.
The chief denies it. Now the city repeats the same refrain: Don't be fooled.
"The DVD ... has been selectively edited to mislead and shock the viewer," said P.J. Johnston, a publicist working for Richmond. "For example, at one point Chris Magnus is shown describing the behavior of one of the plaintiffs, but key parts have been edited out so that it appears the chief is describing his own behavior."
Johnston spoke before federal Judge Marilyn Patel placed a gag order Feb. 26 pertaining to the video.
Dolan said he could not comment because of the order.
"They (the police managers) were confident that 12 people seeing this information would, without a shadow of a doubt, agree that this department is riddled with racism and discrimination," Dolan told KRON4 television during a Jan. 16 interview. "Why now? Because people need to know." He represented six at the beginning of the case: Capts. Cleveland Brown, Alec Griffin and Eugene McBride, and Lts. Michael Booker, Shawn Pickett and Arnold Threets.
The group filed a discrimination suit in Contra Costa Superior Court, unearthing sordid claims of racial joking during command-staff meetings and ears deaf to complaints from the plaintiffs and others about Magnus' promotion decisions.
Magnus has defended his promotions, which included Griffin and Booker, among other black officers.
"Because of my position within the city, and my status as a defendant, I am very limited in how I can publicly respond or defend myself," Magnus wrote in a Feb. 10 open letter to Richmond. "I am confident that when this case is tried in a courtroom, the city and I will be cleared of the false allegations that have been made."
The charges provoked a sharp reaction from city government in December 2006; it hired a former State Bar president to investigate on its behalf. Portions of investigator Raymond Marshall's report remain confidential, but public excerpts show that he could not verify most of the demeaning comments.
"What is beyond dispute ... is that the RPD has serious personnel and communications problems, many pre-existing, which divide the department along racial lines," Marshall concluded in his 2007 report. "Today, every action taken or not taken by the department is viewed with suspicion and through the prism of race."
By the time Marshall finished his report, the case grew to include Lt. Johan Simon and Sgt. Jim Jenkins, head of the black officers association. Jenkins also joined with Brown, Pickett and Threets in a separate, federal civil rights suit claiming they were denied promotion and retaliated against for making their claims.
Griffin dropped out of the suit without public comment in June 2008.
The state case
The original suit claims that Magnus and Ritter harassed and discriminated against blacks in the department, particularly the plaintiffs, and that city government ignored their pleas for help.
It paints Ritter as a dyed-in-the-wool racist who kept photos of white officers wearing western duds on her desk — a silent reminder to black officers of a 1980s-era department, racially polarized and committing violence on the street, perpetuated by a crew of white officers dubbed "the Cowboys" by media of the time.
Magnus appears as a sarcastic bigot who attached himself to Ritter upon his arrival and with her rearranged the command structure to disempower and exclude black managers held over from the previous regime.
Among the claims:
· Ritter asked Brown, a black man, to tap-dance for an audience of white police managers from other police agencies during a break in a software training session.
· Magnus joked to Threets after Brown approached him with concerns about Ritter, saying, "Arnold, picture this. Lori Ritter standing over Cleveland with leather boots up to her waist, cracking a whip, saying, 'Dance, jigaboo, dance!'"
· Magnus joked to his secretary when Griffin called the office to offer him a ride, saying, "It will be just like 'Driving Miss Daisy,'" a reference to the 1989 film about the relationship between an elderly, southern white woman and her black chauffeur.
Magnus denied the "Miss Daisy" comment, and denied that he used the word "jigaboo."
For years he has maintained that his discussion with Threets, then head of internal affairs, came out of incredulity about a surreal complaint Brown made earlier in his office. He said Brown came to his office to tell him it would be wrong to force four black men — the captains — to work for a white woman. Magnus has said that Brown pantomimed whipping, even got down on all fours.
And the other meeting, during which Ritter asked Brown to dance, plaintiffs claim, happened two years before Magnus came to Richmond. Ritter apologized to all involved and spoke to then-Chief Terry Hudson, who declined to discipline her.
"She said that, during a break in a meeting, Brown, who was known for clowning and entertaining at meetings, might have to do 'a song and dance' while they waited," Johnston said. "Another witness confirms that Ritter said 'song and dance,' not 'tap-dance,' but that's left off the DVD. And, to be sure, she expressed no racial implication.
"Ritter denied asking Brown to 'tap-dance' — but her testimony was edited out of the plaintiffs' DVD," he added, before Patel handed down the gag order.
The federal case
The second case, filed in U.S. District Court in July 2008, claims that Magnus retaliated against some of the plaintiffs with involuntary transfers and denial of promotions after they went public with their complaints.
Threets, Pickett and Jenkins all claim Magnus passed over them when he created a fourth captaincy in the department, though all tested well enough to be considered. Magnus instead promoted Sgt. Allwyn Brown, who is black but not participating in the lawsuits.
Cleveland Brown, meanwhile, claims that the city's years-long attempt to fire him amounts to retaliation. Brown went on paid leave for more than a year after rupturing an Achilles tendon he tried to claim as a workers' compensation case.
The claim was rejected, as he injured himself at home, attorneys explained to the judge last month; he had jumped up excitedly during a televised boxing match.
Dolan said that the case to fire Brown depends on a technical, word-parsing discrepancy between his doctor's advice and how he represented the injury in the letter complaining to the city about retaliation. The city made its decision after hiring a private investigator to determine whether he attempted to defraud Richmond.
Brown's attorney in that case declined to comment.
"They're using me for an example for anyone who is currently involved, or may be thinking about bringing an action towards the city," Brown told KRON4 in January. "If I can be, you know, discharged, after 32 years, then no one is safe."
Contact Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/kfischer510.