After more than a week on the witness stand, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus’ last day of testimony as a defendant was one of more questions from the plaintiff’s attorneys—and from the jury.
“Do you have any friends in the Richmond Police Department?” was one question that came from the jury, read by the judge.
Magnus spent the day of testimony answering questions from Stephen Jaffe, attorney for six of the plaintiffs, and Jonathan Matthews, attorney for the seventh, Lt. Cleveland Brown.
“I try to avoid that as chief,” Magnus said, responding to the jury question. “I don’t consider any of my coworkers …” Magnus paused for several seconds. “This sounds sad as I am saying it … It’s a dangerous line to walk. There’s a special treatment perception.”
It was a clear articulation of what has been an apparent, if unstated, subplot in the multimillion dollar discrimination lawsuit filed by seven high-ranking African American officer against Magnus, former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the city of Richmond: It’s been lonely at the top of the organization.
The lawsuit was initiated in 2007. The plaintiffs allege that Magnus and Ritter created an environment hostile to black command staff officers, impaired the opportunities for promotion and made inappropriate racially-tinged jokes.
Prosecuting attorney Jaffe spent the better part of Monday morning probing Magnus’ decision early in his tenure to install Ritter in one of his two newly created deputy chief positions. Ritter’s promotion made Brown and three other veteran black police captains her subordinates.
Jaffe asked a series of questions about Lt. Johan Simon, a veteran officer some viewed as the best candidate for the #2 job in the department, assisting Magnus.
Magnus said he didn’t recall any overtures made by Simon indicating he was interested in the deputy chief position in 2006.
Simon is a high-profile and decorated officer. In the early 1980s, then-Detective Simon was interviewed and featured prominently in a “60 Minutes” segment about “The Cowboys,” an allegedly racist clique of white officers that the plaintiffs allege Ritter has ties to. Ritter is caucasion. Simon was the only black officer to appear in the news magazine program on behalf of the so-called “Cowboys,” arguing that he and his colleagues were being hampered while fighting crime in a tough town.
Simon’s philosophies on crime fighting – he advocated for roving “crime suppression units” – would more than 20 years later again be in disfavor, this time because it wasn’t a smooth fit with Chief Magnus’ more community-oriented approach.
Magnus testified that Simon was beleaguered by some of his African American colleagues and that, unlike them, Simon had a good relationship with Ritter.
“You heard from people some things about Simon? About his hair?,” Jaffe asked.
“Simon seemed to be the butt of many jokes at command meetings,” Magnus said. “Many [jokes] from the [other] plaintiffs about his hair, about him not being black enough, about him being friends with then-Capt. Ritter.”
“How do you think [Ritter and Simon] would have worked together?” Jaffe asked.
“Deputy Chief Ritter has shown that she can work effectively with a wide range of people, so I think she would have worked well Johan Simon,” Magnus said.
Later, Jaffe pointed out Simon’s credentials, including that Simon holds a master’s degree, a level of educational attainment Magnus could not credit to any one else in the department, other than himself. Along with his experience and articulate communication style, Simon looked to many to be a strong candidate for deputy chief, Jaffe suggested.
But Magnus said that the Simon he dealt with in 2006 was “emotionally volatile,” and was “overwhelmed” with personal issues including debt and marital troubles, which affected his performance.
For example, during a drafting process for an application for a federal grant, Magnus testified, he was working on revisions with Simon, but the application did not meet the deadline.
But Jaffe said an independent investigation into the tardy grant laid responsibility on Magnus. Magnus did not duck blame.
“I should have kept a closer eye on how the deadlines are met,” Magnus said. “As chief, I am ultimately responsible for what my subordinates do or don’t do.”
In later testimony, Magnus delved into his relationship with Lt. Shawn Pickett, who was seen as a young rising star in the department and was initially appointed by Magnus to head the Investigative Services Division. Soon after, Magnus and Pickett butted heads over Magnus’ insistence that Pickett would not be able to unilaterally decide who would be tapped for ISD duty. Instead, Magnus decreed that Pickett would be a member of a panel that would follow a standardized process rather than leaving it to the division’s head, as had been done in the past.
A juror’s question about why Magnus retained Pickett despite Pickett’s reluctance to implement his program gave Magnus a lengthy pause, which he followed by saying he was “disappointed” because his initial dealings with Pickett so impressed him.
“I saw a lot of good things out of Lt. Pickett, that’s why I moved him in (ISD) in the first place. I thought we were of like mind in community policing, community engagement.” Magnus said.
Late in the day Monday, the questions moved more specifically toward the chief’s relationship with Ritter, who is on deck to testify next.
When Magnus took the helm of the department in early 2006, Ritter filled out a questionnaire about the status of the department. Among other complaints, Jaffe said, Ritter wrote that promotions were being given to people “with criminal convictions,” and that these people “taint the development” of others who aspire to help achieve public goals.
“Do those comments strike you as positive,” Jaffe asked.
“They strike me as honest feedback, which is what I asked for,” Magnus said.