A Contra Costa County jury today ruled that Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus did not engage in discrimination against seven high-ranking black officers in the department. The jury also completely exonerated now retired Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the City of Richmond of any wrongdoing.
The jury's unanimous verdict also validates Magnus' reform efforts within the once-troubled Richmond Police Department. The department had been plagued by scandal and ineffectiveness. But under Magnus, it has turned into a model police agency. And the lawsuit against him was widely viewed in the city as an attempt to derail his work, and restore the now-discredited power structure that once controlled RPD.
The defendants’ lawyers told the jury during closing arguments that the seven plaintiffs were a cabal of self-interested command staffers who were upset that Magnus had abolished the buddy system that had facilitated their rise to the highest positions in the police department through intimidation, race baiting tactics, and backroom deal-making.
The Richmond City Council, perhaps the most progressive in the Bay Area, steadfastly backed Magnus throughout the case. And today, the jury validated the council's stance in a verdict that went completely against the plaintiffs. The jury concluded unanimously that none of the plaintiffs' allegations against Magnus and the city were true.
At one point on Tuesday, the reading of the verdict had to be halted when one of the plaintiffs, 48-year-old Sergeant James Jenkins fainted in the gallery. Magnus shot out of his seat and appeared quite worried and at least one of the jurors began to cry. Jenkins was laid out on the courtroom floor for several minutes while co-plaintiff Lieutenant Arnold Threets spoke to him. “You’re alright, Jim. You’re alright,” Threets said. “You were robbed, but you’re alright.” Jenkins recovered enough to walk out of the courtroom without assistance. The seven plaintiffs had asked the jury to award them $3 million each for emotional distress, lost wages, and various costs.
While the verdict was being read, Magnus’ longtime partner, Terrance Cheung, sat next to the chief for the first time during the trial. Before the trial began, defense attorneys made a motion to ban Cheung from the courtroom. After the verdict was completely read and each juror was individually polled on each of the seventy or so counts, the jury filed quickly out of the courthouse and did not respond to reporters asking for comment.
Magnus thanked the city and community for supporting him during what he described as the biggest ordeal of his life. He said the police department will now begin an uncertain process of healing after five years of interdepartmental division related to the lawsuit. All of the plaintiffs remain police officers in Richmond. “There are no easy answers to how we’ll heal,” Magnus said. “We’ll have to work together and show respect to each other and focus on reducing crime and working with the community.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe, who also represents several of the plaintiffs in a pending federal case against Magnus and the city of Richmond, said he was stunned by the verdict. “I’m numb and they are profoundly disappointed. They are a little cynical about the justice system right now, but as one of them said ‘We’re used to things like this happening in Richmond.’”