In 2007, eight high-ranking African American police officers sued the city of Richmond, accusing police Chief Chris Magnus and former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter of racial discrimination.
The civil trial is now in its third week in Contra Costa Superior Court in Martinez.
The plaintiffs—one of whom has since retired from the department and dropped his name from the suit—sued in March 2007, just over a year after Magnus was hired from Fargo, North Dakota. The suit alleges that Magnus and then-Deputy Chief Ritter, who has since retired, made racist jokes, blocked the advancement of black officers and retaliated against them for drawing attention to racial tensions in the department. Magnus has denied any discrimination. The attorneys defending the city, Geoffrey Spellberg and Arthur Hartinger of the Oakland firm Meyers Nave, argue that the plaintiffs are seeking to undermine a progressive police chief who was brought in from outside to shake up a dysfunctional department.
On the fifth day of testimony Wednesday, Sergeant James Jenkins, a plaintiff, testified that he believed Magnus changed the hiring requirements for certain positions in order to keep black officers out.
In the fall of 2006, Jenkins testified, he applied to join the Richmond Police Department’s Investigative Services Division, the unit responsible for investigations including homicides and sexual assaults. Jenkins said he submitted his application by the closing date of October 20, met the minimum qualifications and made the list of applicants. But ten days later, Jenkins said, Magnus sent out a new email, advertising the same positions but with new qualifications. All applicants had to re-apply.
“That took me back,” Jenkins said. But he said he did not think the change was racially motivated until hearing from a captain in the department that “Chief Magnus said he didn’t want a ‘black out’ in ISD.”
Asked by his attorney, Stephen Jaffe, what he thought that comment meant, Jenkins replied, “My opinion was that the Chief was trying to exclude African Americans from ISD.”
The new minimum qualifications required investigative experience, which, Jenkins said, is difficult to obtain unless an officer is already in the Investigative Services Division. At the time, he said, the division was predominantly white.
In an email sent out to officers shortly after issuing the new hiring process, Magnus wrote that he was aware of rumors that the process had been changed to disadvantage certain groups, and wrote, “I assure you, that’s not the case.”
Jenkins also testified that he was denied a promotion to captain because of his race, despite three times passing the captain’s test. But during cross-examination, he agreed with defense attorney Geoffrey Spellberg that Magnus promoted four black officers in April 2006, two to lieutenant and two to captain. He also said that Magnus told him he would not skip ranks. Jenkins is a sergeant; the next rank is lieutenant, then captain.
Jenkins was the fourth plaintiff to testify since opening statements were given in the trial last Tuesday. Magnus is expected to testify next week.
Everyone involved in the case has been under a gag order since 2010, when a former lawyer for the plaintiffs released a heavily edited DVD of deposition testimony.
The officers are seeking back pay for denied promotions, lawyers’ fees and punitive damages. So far, the defense has cost the city $2.4 million, plus another $1.9 million covered by insurance. The trial is expected to run for at least two months, keeping much of the police department’s command staff in Martinez through March.