On his second day of testimony in the racial discrimination lawsuit filed against him, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus made some memorable statements to the court.
Things heated up on Thursday when Stephen R. Jaffe, the attorney for the seven plaintiffs who are suing Magnus and the city, asked Magnus about his conversation with plaintiff Lieutenant Cleveland Brown on the potential promotion of Lori Ritter to Deputy Chief. Ritter, a white woman whom the plaintiffs allege had a reputation for racism, was set to be promoted above several black officers.
Magnus described Brown’s behavior in reaction to the idea of working with Ritter as “clown-like” and “unprofessional,” going so far as to pretend to being whipped by the then-Captain Ritter.
“There were several occasions when Captain Brown became very animated when describing what it would be like to work for Lori Ritter,” said Magnus. “I remember him getting down on all fours and raising up his arm and saying, ‘Don’t beat me, Miss Lori.”
Magnus testified that it was hard to tell whether Brown was joking. In previous court testimony, Brown has said that Ritter once told him to tap dance.
“I didn’t hear substantive issues other than him not wanting to work for a white female,” said Magnus. “At one point, Brown went so far as to say that African American captains shouldn’t have to work for a white female.”
Brown looked visibly upset during the testimony, shaking his head at Magnus’ description of his behavior and looking back towards his fellow plaintiffs, Capt. Eugene McBride, Sgt. James Jenkins and Lieutenants Arnold Threets, Shawn Pickett, Michael Booker and Johan Simon, who sat silently in the courtroom gallery.
Jaffe continued by asking Magnus about comments he made during a monthly command staff meeting in 2006 in regards to the June 19th holiday known as “Juneteenth,” the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of African-American enslavement in the United States. During the meeting, Magnus had jokingly asked “What is Juneteenth, a holiday for shooting people?”
“Isn’t it true that you were disciplined by City Manager Bill Lindsay for asking if Juneteenth was a holiday for shooting people?” asked Jaffe.
“Mr. Lindsay did in fact counsel me that he wished I’d chosen different words,” said Magnus. “And I agree with him. Certainly my intention was never to be offensive towards anyone.”
The Juneteenth comment “was a product of your ignorance of the holiday, is that right?” asked Jaffe.
“That’s right,” said Magnus.
The small courtroom seated over 20 people on the plaintiff’s side of the aisle, the largest audience yet in anticipation of Magnus’ testimony. Those in attendance included local neighbors of the police chief, a handful of reporters, and city councilmember Jeff Ritterman. Everyone except the plaintiffs were sitting on the right side of the aisle facing the side of the room where Magnus was giving his testimony, while the plaintiffs looked isolated on their half of the room.
One of the most startling moments during the day’s testimony was Magnus’ description of a retreat to Napa in September, 2006, at which he had led a discussion about race relations in the department using a PowerPoint presentation. After witnessing what he felt was self-enforced racial segregation among officers during awards dinners and outings, Magnus said he felt he had to address the issue during the retreat.
During the presentation, Magnus testified, he asked his staff how race, including the history of racial issues in the department, affected the officers’ ability to function as a cohesive management team and how they could go about improving matters. Magnus’ invitation for open dialogue about the subject made the atmosphere tense, he recalled. He said the dialogue became confrontational among some of his staff including Lieutenants Arnold Threets, Cleveland Brown, and Mike Gormley. Magnus recalled the discussion changing from the subject of race into one that criticized his leadership, the direction of the department, and work cliques.
“Part of the reason for the retreat was that that I felt we had a very disjointed command staff that were not supporting each other,” said Magnus. “I remember Captain Brown being very challenging on a whole range of issues… That’s kind of been how he interacted with me, not just at this retreat, but in general. I really felt that he was challenging me as chief, and challenging the direction I wanted to take the department.”
Magnus went on to say that at the time, he was disappointed not only in his command staff for making the discussion confrontational, but also disappointed in the other staff members who just watched and said nothing. At this point during the retreat, he testified, he began to lose his temper.
“Did you utter the words, ‘I’m going to make your life a living hell’ to your staff?” asked Jaffe.
“Yeah, I did,” said Magnus pausing to answer.
“I told everyone, ‘If you’re not going to get on board then you need to work somewhere else, and I’m going to make your life hell.’ Dramatic. Sorry,” said Magnus, addressing the jury to apologize for the swear word. “But I was really disappointed in everything that I was hearing and not hearing from everyone in the room.”
Defense attorney Geoffrey Spellberg is expected to begin his cross examination of Magnus on Tuesday.