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Testimony in Magnus trial focuses on descent into dispute

on February 1, 2012

Strife within the Richmond Police Department was so charged by late 2006 that the Police Chief and some of his top command staff were barely speaking and pursuing competing agendas. A management retreat devolved into open revolt, and emails and memos swirling among department elite were being screened by attorneys in preparation for a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the city.

That was the picture that emerged in testimony Tuesday, as one of the plaintiffs, Lt. Shawn Pickett, jousted with defense attorneys in more than six hours of cross-examination.

“In fact you were building your lawsuit against the city,” said attorney Arthur Hartinger, part of the team representing Magnus and the city. “You had no interest in making recruiting for (Investigative Services Department) a success, right?”

“I did not agree with the (recruiting) process,” Pickett said.

Tuesday’s proceedings drew near the one-quarter point of what is expected to be a 12-week trial in Contra Costa County Civil Court. Pickett and six other high-ranking African American police officials are suing Police Chief Chris Magnus, former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the City of Richmond for alleged workplace discrimination.

The plaintiffs are Pickett, Capt. Eugene McBride, Sgt. James Jenkins and Lieutenants Cleveland Brown, Arnold Threets, Michael Booker and Johan Simon.

The suit was initially filed in 2007, and the ongoing legal wrangling has already cost more than $4 million, much of it paid by city taxpayers.  Richmond officials say defending the lawsuit has cost $4.3 million so far, with $1.9 million of that covered by insurance.

The allegations include that Ritter and Magnus created a hostile work environment for the plaintiffs, disciplined and stymied promotions in retaliation for complaints, and made racist remarks while on the job.

Tuesday’s testimony – a marathon volley between Hartinger and Pickett – traced the rapid devolution of relations in the department after Magnus’ January 2006 hiring, which brought him to Richmond from Fargo, N.D.

Initially, Pickett and Magnus were on positive terms, evidenced by mutually admiring email exchanges and Magnus promoting Pickett to head the ISD, a prestigious post.

On Feb. 23, Pickett sent Magnus an email criticizing McBride, who would later be his co-defendant.

“Prior to your arrival, captain McBride did what was best for himself … and not the organization,” Pickett wrote. “He often blatantly ignored the input of his staff when it came down to making pretty common sense decisions.”

Magnus replied on Feb. 10: “I value your input and ideas Shawn, so keep them coming! CM”

Earlier that same month, Pickett sent Magnus another email praising him for shaking up the status quo. Under the subject line “Thank You,” Pickett wrote to Magnus: “Thank you for supporting the move to change the cars and reviving staff that have been dead beats for years.”

But the relationship would soon sour. In late April, dueling memos would flip back and forth between McBride and Pickett, with Pickett taking issue with the senior officer’s poor writing skills and McBride countering that Pickett needed to learn to accept constructive criticism.

On April 20, Pickett wrote Magnus again.

“Hi Chief,” Pickett wrote. “About ten thousand birds have told me I’m going to CIB (an investigation unit) as the Lt. its that your plan I have no problem accepting the challenge. … however please let me know and if it is true I would like the atonomy (sic) to recruit and select new detectives. Thank you brother, Shawn.”

Magus responded one day later.

“Now you’re talking birds? You’re scaring me again! :)” Magnus wrote, using an emoticon to denote a happy face.

“No real plans yet, but I’m glad to know you would be up for the challenge ….

Have a good weekend. Keep up the good work.


Hartinger noted that in the summer of 2006, a major reorganization occurred, with more than a dozen high ranking officers shuffling to different positions, including Pickett being tapped to head ISD.

Pickett acknowledged that before Magnus’ arrival, prestigious appointments to departments were based on a “buddy system” rather than meritorious concerns. But, Pickett said, Magnus’ process, which took away his authority to appoint who he saw fit, was no better.

The tensions boiled over at a retreat in Napa Valley in September 2006, Pickett testified.

By late in the year, the plaintiffs were consulting attorneys and discussing legal action. It was also during this time that Magnus made off-color racial comments in the presence of various subordinates, the plaintiffs allege.

The plaintiffs allege that Magnus and Ritter, who now lives on the East Coast and was not present, stirred a legacy of bigotry in the agency.

On Dec. 26, 2006, Pickett sent an email to Magnus, which he had shown Threets before.

“I feel as if though you are not factoring my input into your decision making process, in that you have failed to adequately address my concerns,” Pickett wrote, adding that he believed the chief was “… motivated by your desire to limit the number of minorities assigned to the Investigative Services Division.”

The trial is set to resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

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