Is Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus a racist? He’s white, but he’s also openly gay and is perhaps one of the most progressive police chiefs in the Bay Area. He also has a strong record of promoting people of color within the police department, and enjoys the full backing of the Richmond City Council, which is currently controlled by a progressive majority and led by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, one of the few Green Party mayors in the country. Nonetheless, starting today, Magnus will be the main defendant in what is expected to be a twelve-week trial in which seven high-ranking black officers have sued the city for discrimination, claiming that Magnus denied them promotions in order to weaken black leadership within the department.
Besides claims that Magnus did not promote certain black officers, the plaintiffs claim that he and former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter regularly made racist comments. In one instance in which Magnus learned for the first time about the tradition of Juneteenth celebrations, he asked, “So what’s Juneteenth? Is that a holiday for shooting people?” That is the one comment Magnus admits to making, though he has said that as a white cop coming from Fargo, North Dakota, he had never before heard of the holiday that commemorates the abolition of slavery.
All of the other allegations of insensitive comments are disputed, including one occasion in which the plaintiffs claim Magnus jokingly said, “Dance, jigaboo, dance.” Plaintiff Lieutenant Arnold Threets alleged in his deposition that the “jigaboo” comment was made in relation to a meeting in which four black police captains were told they would be reporting to a female superior, which the black officers resented according plaintiff Lieutenant Cleveland Brown’s deposition. Magnus denies ever using the slur.
On the face of it, the plaintiffs’ allegations appear to be a traditional case of discrimination in which the ambitions of minority employees are systematically thwarted by biased management and racist institutional policy. But this case does not easily fit that mold. Not only is Magnus a progressive, but city management has consistently tried to improve the Richmond’s chronically high crime and unemployment rates by instituting some of the most innovative job training and anti-violence programs in the country
Furthermore, the eight police officers who originally brought the case are unlikely plaintiffs. They are among the police department’s highest ranking officers and earned an average of $182,500 in 2010 (one of the eight officers withdrew from the case).
And despite the city’s lefty political bent, the city council regards the plaintiffs’ allegations to be so flimsy they have thrown the weight of the city’s coffers into Magnus’ defense. “We’re going to bring the two cases to trial,” progressive Councilman Jeff Ritterman told Richmond Confidential in November. “We won’t settle because the case does not have merit on the other side.”
So far the city has approved $4.3 million in defense costs in the five years since the lawsuit was filed. The Employment Risk Management Authority, a state insurance agency, has paid $1.9 million of the legal expenses and city taxpayers have made up the balance.
Magnus’s record of departmental promotions does not reflect a discriminatory policy. In fact, the opposite is true. Since Magnus was first appointed chief in 2006, he has promoted more people of color to the upper ranks than any of his predecessors including two black police chiefs. Magnus has promoted three blacks, including two of the original plaintiffs, to the rank of captain. He also appointed the first Latino and first woman, Lori Ritter, to the rank of deputy chief. In 2010, some time after Ritter retired, Magnus promoted Sergeant Allwyn Brown, a black officer with extensive police experience and longstanding ties to the Richmond community, to deputy chief. Magnus has only promoted one white male to the rank of captain.
Shortly after coming to Richmond from Fargo North Dakota, Magnus conducted a massive reorganizing of the department with a new emphasis on community policing. He instituted greater officer accountability and assured that officers would be assigned to the same districts for long periods of time, which cultivated deeper ties between the beat officers and the communities they patrolled. Over the years, Magnus’ new policies have shown positive results. Crime rates have been steadily gone down and there has been a rise in community participation in neighborhoods where residents had grown used to living in a constant state of fear.
Magnus, who was resented by many of the plaintiffs because of his outsider status, is credited with reforming what was for years a very troubled department. In 2003, the department was plagued by a series of embarrassing scandals. The top advisor to then Chief Joseph Samuels abruptly retired after being accused of sexual harassment. A former officer was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for molesting a ten-year-old boy. An officer retired after being accused of having sex while on duty and another officer was fired after being accused of brutality during a Cinco de Mayo melee. That same year, Samuels, who repeatedly failed to install an effective community policing program, retired — some say at the insistence of city leaders who were pointing toward the door with fully extended arms.
Despite their high rank, at least one of the plaintiffs also has credibility problems. In 1986, Lieutenant Cleveland Brown pled no contest to a charge of selling automobiles without a license. Several of Brown’s fellow officers claimed Brown engaged in fraud by collecting payments for expensive German automobiles that were never delivered.
In 2008, Brown filed for worker’s compensation after suffering a knee injury while watching television. He claimed he felt something go “pop” when he jumped up to celebrate during a televised sporting event. The city accused Brown, who took a year’s paid leave due to the injury claim, of fraud because the injury did not happen while he was at work and sought to fire him. Brown said the city’s action was out of retaliation for the lawsuit. In 2010, Brown was demoted from the fourth highest-ranking officer in the department to a lieutenant, though it is uncertain if it was related to the alleged fraudulent worker’s compensation claim.
The plaintiffs’ original attorney, Christopher Dolan, curried no favor with the courts when he widely released a two-hour DVD around Richmond that included snippets of deposition video that was edited in such a way that it appeared that Magnus admitted to making racist remarks. A judge fined Dolan $1,500 and slapped a strict gag order on everyone involved in the case including the city council.