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Inner unrest

on March 26, 2010

It was scheduled as a retreat to Napa, but it turned out to be anything but a relaxing repose in wine country.

Instead, the gathering for top police brass would become a point of no return.

The time was September 2006, and inter-departmental complaints about newly-minted chief Chris Magnus had grown louder.

High-level black officers grumbled about what they alleged were racist and racially-insensitive comments made by Magnus, a white North Dakota import whose hiring came over other longtime local police leaders.

At the same time, Magnus planned to use the retreat to explain some clear goals he had for the department, a strategy that included shifts in management structure and new responsibilities for those in leadership posts. He knew his reforms could encounter resistance.

With critics arrayed against him at an evening meeting, Magnus was ready to respond.

Earlier, Magnus had confided in another high ranking officer, current Deputy Chief Edward Medina, that he wanted to confront his accusers.

Tensions ran high.

Magnus’ deputy chief at the time, Lori Ritter came under fire from the black officers present at the meeting. Ritter was a divisive figure in the department who drew criticism for keeping a prominently displayed photo of “The Cowboys,” a disgraced clique of allegedly racist and violent former cops, in her office.

Magnus first stood aside, hoping Ritter would rise to her own defense.

Her diffident responses seemed to emboldened the critics.

One black police official, Arnold Threets, angrily paraphrased a quote from Malcolm X, demanding that fairness be restored to the department under the Magnus regime.

Magnus said it was time to move forward and get passed the squabbles. He tried to focus on his structural reforms, but his command staff leaned toward revolt.

Captain Cleveland Brown suggested that the command staff may instead just disregard Magnus and take their concerns directly to his boss, City Manager Bill Lindsay.

The chief bristled at the open defiance.

Magnus erupted into an impassioned defense. He threw down a gauntlet, inveighing the professionals in the room against such a course – in savage terms.

“The statement was, you better kill him, because if you wound him, he’ll be like a wounded animal,” remembered Lt. Michael Booker.

That is the narrative that emerges from a DVD featuring sworn testimony by Booker, Magnus, former Deputy Chief Ritter, City Manager Lindsay and several other high level police officials. The DVD was circulated to area media by the plaintiff’s attorneys earlier this year, before the judge in the case issued a gag order. The discrimination suit was filed in March 2007 against Magnus and the city.

But the video, which has been edited and came from the plaintiffs’ side, succeeds in casting a disturbing light on a department that has not yet shaken a checkered past.

The DVD clocks in at more than one hour and runs the gamut of forgettable episodes, from footage of Magnus wrestling with questions about his alleged use of racially insensitive jokes to clips from the 60 Minutes episode years ago that brought the department’s “cowboy” culture to national attention.

Magnus attended a March 13 peace rally coordinated by black religious leaders.

The re-creation of events in Napa nearly four years ago comes from recordings of sworn depositions given last year by more than a half-dozen department officials.

On several occasions, Ritter appears to admit racist behavior during sworn depositions.

City spokespersons, and others, maintain that the video is edited in a way that undermines its validity. Only one news station has used footage from the video in a report.

U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel issued a gag order on all parties last month in response to the circulation of the DVDs containing edited deposition testimony.

Magnus declined comment last week, citing the judge’s gag order.

In the DVD, Medina said that Magnus told him before the meeting that he wanted to confront allegations and suspicions about his comments once and for all. The testimony from the sworn deposition is dated Oct. 30, 2009.

Tension was high, Medina testified.

Magnus said it was time to move forward and get passed the squabbles, Medina testified, a sentiment that was seconded in taped testimony by Lt. Mark Gagan.

Several other witnesses corroborated that Magnus made something close to those  statements.

“Did you find that to be a little bit out of the norm for a commanding officer” to say such a thing, said an unidentified lawyer in the video.

“I did,” Gagan replied.

Ritter is married to a former member of the 1980s “Cowboys,” a clique of white officers so dubbed by the media because of a well-circulated photo of members suited in Western garb. The allegedly racist, violent group gained national notoriety when “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace narrated a segment on them years ago.

“It was going to be a problem, yeah,” Medina said of Magnus’ intention of addressing the issues at the retreat. Medina testified that he also worried that Magnus’ desire to take on the issue would inflame, rather than soothe, racial tensions.

But Magnus disregarded that advice.

According to several sworn depositions, several black officers accused Ritter of disfavoring black officers.

The DVD features sworn testimony by Magnus, former Deputy Chiefs Lori Ritter and Ed Medina, City Manager Bill Lindsay, Lt. Arnold Threets,  Lt. Michael Booker, Lt. Mark Gagan, Lt. Richard Clark, Captain Cleveland Brown,  Captain Allwyn Brown, and other police and city officials was circulated to area media by the plaintiff’s attorneys earlier this year, before the judge in the case issued a gag order.

At a different point during the interrogation, Office of Neighborhood Safety Director Devone Boggan testified that during a conversation with Magnus, Magnus characterized the tensions inside his department as a “civil war.”

City officials have been wary about speaking on the matter.

Last month, prior to the gag order being issued, the lone black City Council member, Nat Bates, said a trial is not a foregone conclusion.

“If there is not a settlement, it’s going to trial,” Bates said.

Bates dismissed the DVD as being unreliable, noting that it represents the plaintiff’s argument in a favorable light.

He did acknowledge that the ongoing issue represents a distraction in the city, where the homicide rate nearly doubled last year as opposed to 2008.

“When you have a case this serious, it’s going to be a distraction,” Bates said.  “A case of this magnitude doesn’t come without distractions, but you’ve got to wait until all the evidence is in.”

Councilman Tom Butt agreed.

“It’s a huge distraction, everybody knows that,” Butt said.

City Manager Lindsay, who has discretion over the hire and fire of the police chief, said at a recent council meeting that he has not wavered in his support of Magnus.

“Not at all,” Lindsay said when asked whether Magnus’ removal had been discussed.

Magnus has been lauded by city officials and civic leaders for his leadership of the department. Crime has generally trended downward since he took his post in early 2006, with a particularly notable drop in 2008. That year, killings in the city were cut nearly in half from 2007. Homicides spiked again in 2009, but overall crime was down slightly.

Rhonda Harris, a local contractor, questioned the city’s allocation of resources in defense against the charges. The city has retained private counsel.

“For me, it’s a public policy issue,” Harris said. “When does the city say stop, enough is enough. We have parks in this city that don’t have restrooms.”

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