High-ranking African American cop comes to Magnus’ defense in discrimination trial

chris magnus, leslie knight

Chris Magnus, foreground, leaving court earlier this month. (Robert Rogers/RichmondConfidential)

In their first full day presenting their defense, attorneys representing Police Chief Chris Magnus, former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the city of Richmond called to the stand an African American police captain who praised Magnus’ leadership and rejected claims the chief or deputy chief are racists.

“I have no reason to believe (Magnus) has any animosity against any other races,” Capt. Anthony Williams testified Monday.

Williams’ detailed testimony covered the gamut of accusations made against Magnus and Ritter in the discrimination lawsuit filed by seven high-ranking African American police officials. Williams was present at many of the events at which Magnus and Ritter allegedly made racially tinged comments, as well as during high-level meetings at which promotions policies were discussed.

The plaintiffs are suing Magnus and Ritter, both Caucasians, and the city for alleged discriminatory practices and banter that created a hostile work environment.

Williams portrayed the gulf between Magnus and the command staff he inherited when he came aboard in 2006 as motivated in part by a desire to retain silos of power and resist Magnus’ sweeping changes in policing policies.

Williams testified that six months after Magnus’ arrival, by which time Magnus and the plaintiffs were at odds, one plaintiff, Lt. Arnold Threets, suggested to him that the chief had lost sway over the command staff.

“One thing that I remember (Threets) saying was, ‘This newcomer isn’t going to get between us,’” Williams said.

Asked by defense attorney Arthur Hartinger to continue, Williams added, “My understanding of what (Threets) meant was that we had positions and directions we’d been going in and Magnus wasn’t going to change it.”

Williams, echoing a subplot during the earlier testimony of several other witnesses since the trial’s Jan. 17 start, said a key point of disagreement was Magnus’ insistence on a new community policing strategy.

Williams, with the department since 1987, said the pre-Magnus era was marked by ineffectual and limited attempts at community policing and the use of roving “high impact” enforcement teams to quell crime hotspots. The teams were dubbed the “Nitro Group,” Williams testified.

“Prior to Magnus, community policing was always a specialized unit, up to 25 officers, but the remainder of the 170 officers didn’t have an active role” in community policing, Williams said. “Magnus eliminated the small groups, and put the responsibility on all of us.”

That meant a new expectation that all patrol officers would work and become familiar with certain neighborhoods, including having more non-enforcement interactions with residents and community groups.

“(Magnus) tasked the command staff with putting this into place. We were to build the structure around this new model,” Williams said.

Instead, Williams testified, the tensions grew, and soon much of the command staff was in open revolt.

By March 2007, the plaintiffs – like Williams, high-ranking African American officers – filed their lawsuit. Williams said he didn’t see it coming.

“I was very surprised. I was taken aback. I had no indications that there were any allegations of racism with the chief,” Williams said.

Williams said that during later discussions with one of the plaintiffs, Lt. Shawn Pickett, Williams was told that he was kept out of the loop because the plaintiffs distrusted him because of his close-working relationship with Ritter, who had groomed him before his promotion to captain.

“They thought their hand would be tipped,” Williams said.

In other testimony, Williams opined on a number of other issues. He directly credited Magnus’ community policing strategy with helping reduce violent crime throughout the city since 2006. He mentioned several occasions when his colleagues seemed to appeal to him to break ranks with Ritter and Magnus, at one point telling Williams that Ritter spoke negatively of him behind his back – an allegation Williams said he did not believe.

The plaintiffs have alleged that Magnus initiated a change – after an application deadline – to the selection process for coveted posts in the Investigative Services Divisions. The plaintiffs allege Magnus wrested control over the appointments from the ISD supervisor, Lt. Pickett, and that Magnus said he did so to prevent a “blackout in ISD,” meaning to limit the number of black officers.

Williams said he understood it differently.

“I understood it that he didn’t want the blacks to boycott the process. He did not want blacks out of the application process,” Williams said, drawing muted chuckles from several of the plaintiffs, who were seated in the gallery. Williams testified that he personally appealed to some African American officers to apply to ISD, which ran counter to the plaintiffs’ approach to not participate in a process they felt was discriminatory.

But Williams’ testimony wasn’t all praise for Magnus.

Under cross-examination from plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe, Williams testified that at one point during a heated meeting at a police management retreat in Napa in 2006, Magnus angrily barked to the plaintiffs something akin to  “they better kill him,” because a “wounded animal is more dangerous.”

Magnus also said “you may as well get on board or retire, did he not?” Jaffe asked.

“Yes, that was when the conversation had got very heated,” Williams said.

Williams also testified that on another occasion in 2006, Magnus made an off-color crack to his command staff about Juneteenth, the African American holiday celebrating the end of slavery in Texas. The context was a meeting to discuss security at holiday events, which had seen some violence in the past. Magnus, unaware of the meaning of Juneteenth, allegedly asked whether Juneteenth was a “holiday for shooting people?”

“The comment about Juneteenth, that was a dumb thing to say,” Williams said. “But I don’t believe it was racially insensitive.”

In earlier testimony Monday, Jackie Thompson offered fulsome praise of Magnus. Thompson, a community activist and chief of staff to Councilmember Corky Booze, told the jury that Magnus was immediately responsive to community concerns and accessible in a way that previous police leaders in Richmond were not. Thompson added that Magnus had even run a personal errand for her.

“The chief is not a racist,” said Thompson, who is African American. “I don’t think a racist man would go to Safeway and get me two bags of groceries and bring them to my house like he did.”

Williams is expected to continue on the stand at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

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