Racism not evident in Richmond police chief's hiring record
By Karl Fischer
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 03/09/2010 02:00:30 PM PST
Updated: 03/09/2010 02:00:30 PM PST
Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus promotes minorities at a greater clip than any predecessor, department records show.
In fact, since he became chief in 2006, not a single white man has risen to the rank of captain, but three blacks, a Latino and a white woman have.
In Richmond, a city that prides itself on creating opportunities for people of color, that record earns Magnus no love where it matters most -- inside his own department.
A main plank of two lawsuits filed against Magnus and the city by a group of black police managers in 2007 involves claims that Magnus did all he could to disempower black leadership in the department, even though the chief promoted two of the original plaintiffs.
"It is entirely unfair to condemn the chief and this department based on a one-sided presentation of the facts, memories and circumstances involved in this case," said P.J. Johnston, a publicist working for Richmond.
Johnston spoke before U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel issued a blanket gag order on all involved parties last month, furious about a two-hour DVD with snippets of deposition testimony released by the plaintiffs and now making the rounds in Richmond.
Because of the gag order, plaintiffs' attorney Chris Dolan would not comment.
The DVD does not flatter Magnus. In one segment, Lt. Johan Simon, one of the plaintiffs, testifies about police brass discussions in early 2006 for holiday riot preparations.
"The chief looks down, contemplates, then looks back up ... and he said, 'So, what's Juneteenth? Is that a holiday for shooting people?' " Simon testified during his June 22, 2009, deposition.
They discussed Cinco de Mayo, which often arrived with rock-throwing, vandalism, once even a shooting. They talked about July Fourth and New Year's Eve, when officers seek cover to avoid catching stray rounds. The new police chief from Fargo, N.D., drank in the strangeness and, with no knowledge of Juneteenth's significance, made the quip.
That's the only insensitive comment to which Magnus admits. But much of the case rests in a series of disputed comments they claim Magnus and retired Deputy Chief Lor Ritter made in 2006 and 2007, along with the assertion that the chief's promotion decisions reflect a bias against blacks.
Department records paint a different picture.
About two-thirds of all promotions Magnus made from his arrival to this year went to people of color. Among the highest ranks, all three of his captain promotions went to black men.
His two deputy chief selections were Ritter, the highest-ranking woman in department history, and Ed Medina, the highest-ranking Latino.
And, since 2006, Magnus has served as police management's most active liaison to the local Juneteenth celebration.
But that's not the Magnus portrayed by the plaintiffs. The chief's supporters say his accusers hope to destroy his reputation in the community with the DVD, whether or not they succeed in court.
The case has crawled along since 2007 in two venues: both federal and Contra Costa Superior Court. Seven officers, including roughly half of Magnus's command staff, claim Magnus and Ritter systematically undermined the influence of an established cadre of black managers out of bigotry.
The city contends the plaintiffs simply preferred the department as it was before Magnus introduced sweeping structural changes to adapt it to modern community policing, including much higher standards of accountability for those near the top.
"The chief is not a racist, he does not engage in discriminator behavior, and that will be borne out in court," Johnston said before the gag order.
Most of the allegations on the DVD come with editing that obscures testimony or, in some cases, entire omissions of witnesses who refute allegations.
During one section of video, for example, Capt. Alec Griffin testified that he phoned the chief's secretary Oct. 30, 2006, to see if Magnus needed a ride to a meeting they planned to attend. The secretary asked the chief, and Griffin testified that he heard the chief in the background say something like, "It will be just like 'Driving Miss Daisy' " -- a reference to a 1989 movie about an elderly white woman and a black chauffeur.
Magnus testified that he did not remember making the comment. His secretary and Medina, both of whom were in the office, both remembered it.
Testimony about the first reference to "Driving Miss Daisy," however, did not make the DVD cut.
Capt. Cleveland Brown first made the claim that Magnus uttered the joke a few days earlier, as he, Magnus and Ritter prepared to drive together to the West Contra Costa school district office for a meeting, Magnus said before the gag order. Brown drove, and Ritter got in the back seat before Magnus reached the car, he has maintained over the years.
Magnus said Ritter didn't need to ride in back. She said she didn't mind and, the defense claims, Brown chimed in that it was "just like 'Driving Miss Daisy'." Magnus replied that "Ritter ain't no Miss Daisy."
Both Magnus and Ritter testified about that conversation during depositions.
Court records show the defense also intends to call as a witness retired Sgt. Jim Ingram, a white man, who frequently drove former Chief Joseph Samuels Jr. to appointments. Ingram said Griffin and Brown both frequently teased him about "Driving Miss Daisy."
Another severe example of omission on the video involves Magnus ignoring complaints of his black captains when promoting Ritter, even joking about them using racial slurs.
"I told Magnus, 'Well, if you place Lori over the black captains, it's going to reek of kind of that slave/master mentality," Capt. Cleveland Brown testified in a deposition memorialized by the publicly released video.
Accounts of this conversation differ. Magnus said before the gag order that Brown came to his office soon after he promoted Ritter to complain that the four captains, all black men, were required to report to a white woman. During the conversation, Magnus claimed that Brown pantomimed a whip-cracking motion, and at one point got down on all fours as if Ritter were standing over him.
The chief's incredulous account of this strange conversation to his internal affairs lieutenant, Arnold Threets, evolved into one of the most serious allegations leveled against him in the suits: That the whipping discussion was Magnus's own joke, and he used the racial slur "jigaboo" in telling it.
"Arnold, picture this. Lori Ritter standing over Cleveland with leather boots up to her waist, cracking a whip, saying, 'Dance, jigaboo, dance,' " Threets testified, quoting Magnus.
The plaintiff's recording incorporates that testimony under the heading, "Chief Chris Magnus joked about Ritter standing over Capt. Brown in leather boots with a whip, urging him to 'dance, jigaboo, dance.'"
The plaintiffs' DVD accuses Magnus of lying to the public about the comment, including as proof an excerpt of Magnus's Sept. 30, 2009, deposition in which he appears to confirm that he made the comment. The question asked of him, however, did not include the racial slur. Magnus has consistently denied ever using it.
"Didn't you, in front of Arnold Threets and Lori Ritter, at one time in a car, when you were driving someplace together, make reference to Cleveland Brown, Lori Ritter, Lori Ritter with thigh-high boots and a whip, and the words dance?" Dolan asked Magnus.
"Yes," Magnus replied. The rest of his response appears to have been clipped from the video.
"Chief 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 said before the gag order. "That not only misleads the viewer, it poses a problem for answering your question, 'Did he say this?' Because the answer is 'Yes, but only in the sense that he was describing someone else -- which he was prompted to do by the question at deposition.' "
Contact Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/kfischer510.