Police Chief Chris Magnus, retired Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the city of Richmond were cleared by a Contra Costa County jury on Tuesday of racial discrimination and harassment charges.
Seven high-ranking African American police officials had sought damages of around $18 million for what they alleged were a series of racial digs as well as systemic discrimination by Magnus and Ritter, both of whom are white. The jury ruled that the plaintiffs were entitled to nothing.
“I’ve been overwhelmed throughout this whole trial from the community support we’ve gotten,” Magnus said to a gaggle of reporters atop the steps in front of Contra Costa County Superior Court. “It’s just been tremendous. This is one of the most difficult things I have ever been through in my life.”
As the jury’s verdict was read, plaintiff Sgt. James Jenkins slumped in his chair. Fellow plaintiff Lt. Johan Simon and others rushed to Jenkins’ aid. After spending a few moments laying on his back on the courtroom floor, Jenkins managed to rise and was helped from the courtroom, his necktie loosened and dress shirt unbuttoned. Jenkins and fellow plaintiff Lt. Shawn Pickett did not return to the proceedings.
Tuesday’s verdict was the culmination of a suit that was first filed in 2007. Court proceedings began in early January. In addition to Jenkins, Pickett and Simon, the other plaintiffs were Lts. Arnold Threets, Cleveland Brown and Michael Booker, and Capt. Eugene McBride.
The plaintiffs alleged that Magnus disfavored African American staff, made insensitive remarks and retaliated against subordinates who questioned his methods. Throughout the trial, the defense attorneys argued that the plaintiffs were motivated by their resistance to change brought by a new chief. Magnus was hired in 2006.
Outside the courtroom, Threets said he respected the jury for their public service, but disagreed with the decision. “I respect the process, but I’m profoundly disappointed,” Threets said. “Evil won, man, in my personal opinion … that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Defense attorney Geoffrey Spellberg said he hopes the sweeping victory will dissuade the plaintiffs from pursuing further litigation in federal court, which is scheduled to hear the case in November.
“We’d like to reach out to the plaintiffs and their lawyers and see if it’s unnecessary to go forward with [the federal case] in light of the verdict today,” Spellberg said.
Speaking before his attorney, Spellberg, Magnus addressed a range of issues on the steps of the courthouse. He said the Richmond Police Department was full of “first rate” officers and police managers, that the verdict was also an “endorsement” of the work done by the men and women in uniform, and that the future was bright for the department because of its staff. Magnus also said he had no problem with working with the men who sued him.
“I bear no animosity toward anyone, I want to be able to move forward,” Magnus said. “I feel badly if anyone of (the plaintiffs) is going through a rough time right now. I know if I was in their shoes I would be feeling that as well.”
The defense victory was costly for both sides. The city, which decided early on with a unanimous council vote to back Magnus and fight the charges, spent in the neighborhood of $4 million on legal costs.
Councilman Nat Bates issued a statement via email minutes after the verdict.
“It’s good news the city is not liable where the costs could have been millions of dollars to the plaintiffs,” Bates wrote.