Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus took the stand Wednesday, the first time the jury has heard from him since testimony began in the racial discrimination lawsuit filed against him.
Magnus was sworn in just fifteen minutes before court adjourned. But fifteen minutes were enough to offer a preview of the arguments ahead. Stephen R. Jaffe, the attorney for the seven plaintiffs who are suing Magnus and the city for workplace discrimination, described what he called a racially charged prank in 2006; Magnus said the plaintiffs were reading too much into an innocuous April Fools’ joke.
The plaintiffs have alleged that Magnus and his then-Deputy Chief Lori Ritter made racist jokes and blocked the promotion of black officers. In court, the plaintiffs have cited an incident in which Magnus posted a portrait of then-Captain Ritter with the caption “master of universe.” Plaintiffs say the word “master” was offensive, especially since Ritter—a white woman whom plaintiffs allege had a reputation for racism—was about to be promoted above several black officers.
In court on Wednesday, Magnus said the incident was an April Fools’ Day joke that flopped.
Jaffe asked Magnus what “master of the universe” meant to him.
“What it means to me is a joke, albeit one that I regret now,” Magnus said.
The department, Magnus said, had a bulletin board intended for portraits of police command staff. For months the board sat empty, he said, except for one photo of Ritter. He asked other staff to have their pictures taken and posted, without result. Around April 1, 2006, Magnus said, he printed out a dozen photos of Ritter and pinned them to the board, each captioned by a different title, from “volunteer” and “recruit” to “deputy chief,” “chief,” and “master of universe.”
It was a joke, he said, “which, I have to say, she didn’t find particularly funny.”
“That was the intention,” Magnus said. “And to be a little bit of a push for folks to put other photos up.”
Magnus testified that the photos were posted for only a few hours, and he said he had no idea that officers were offended until the lawsuit was filed in early 2007. If he had known, he said, he would have taken them down immediately.
Prior to Magnus’s testimony, most of the day was devoted to testimony from Lieutenant Cleveland Brown, one of the plaintiffs. It was Brown’s fifth day on the stand.
During cross-examination, Brown shed doubt on one of the plaintiff’s chief complaints, that Magnus had changed the selection process to keep black officers out of the department’s Investigative Services Division (ISD). In previous testimony, at least two other plaintiffs, Lieutenant Shawn Pickett and Sergeant James Jenkins, had said that Magnus required written examples of prior investigations from applicants to the ISD. Jenkins testified that the requirement favored officers who were already in the ISD, since patrol officers outside the department would not have had the chance to conduct investigations. Pickett said that writing samples had been historically used by the city to exclude minority officers, whom supervisors would argue could not write well enough.
But on Wednesday Brown said that it was he, and not Magnus, who first required that applicants submit a written sample of prior investigations. Brown was head of ISD from 2005 – 2006, before Magnus joined the department. Asked by defense attorney Geoffrey Spellberg whether he thought writing samples were a good idea, Brown said, “Absolutely.”
Brown also confirmed that he lives in Las Vegas, and commuted to Richmond from Las Vegas during his tenure as police captain. Brown testified that he spent five days each week in Richmond, but Las Vegas has been his primary residence since at least 2006, when his wife took a job there.
The small courtroom was unusually full Wednesday, in anticipation of Magnus’ testimony. Five reporters sat in back, and the audience included a handful of local residents who support Magnus.
During a break in the hearing, Richmond residents Julie Freestone and Rudi Raab said the defense was worth the $4.3 million it has cost the city thus far.
“Magnus came in to change the culture of the department,” Freestone said, adding that he brought a new focus on community-involved policing and promotions based on merit, not years in the department. “That’s what the community wanted.”
“He was a game changer,” Raab said of Magnus.
As the day wound down, one exchange seemed to get at the heart of the case. Jaffe asked Magnus why he decided to hire from within the department for the newly created position of Deputy Chief.
“I said, I think one outsider was enough for the organization,” Magnus said.
“Who was the outsider?” Jaffe asked.
“Me,” Magnus said. “I came in from the outside.”