Cliques, rumors, exclusion: Those words came up again and again on Wednesday during testimony in the racial discrimination suit against the police Chief Chris Magnus.
Plaintiffs Cleveland Brown and Shawn Pickett, both lieutenants, painted a portrait of a police department riddled with resentment and split between competing cliques that sometimes broke down along racial lines. When the newly hired chief Magnus entered the department and forged a close relationship with then-Captain Lori Ritter—whom the plaintiffs accused Wednesday of blatant racism –he seemed to favor one faction, Brown and Pickett testified, which sparked resentment and frustration.
Brown and Pickett are two of seven high-ranking African American police officers who sued the city and Magnus in 2007 for workplace discrimination. The plaintiffs have alleged that Magnus and Ritter made racist jokes and blocked the advancement of black officers. Attorneys for the city argue that the suit was filed to undermine Magnus, then a new police chief hired from Fargo, N.D.
Brown said that he was looking forward to the arrival of Richmond’s new police chief when Mangus took office in early 2006. A Richmond native, Brown was a 29-year veteran of the department who had served under nine chiefs: five permanent, four interim.
“I was happy because we finally had a chief,” Brown testified Wednesday. “Not an interim chief, not an acting chief.” Brown said he had high hopes for the new chief, who “was coming into an organization that had been adrift, that was going to right the ship.”
“I was looking forward to a fresh start,” Brown continued. “Here’s a new person who has no … cliques, no preconceived notions, nothing.”
Brown said that, as one of just three captains—the others were Ritter and Eugene McBride—he hoped to work closely with Magnus. But in one of their very first meetings, Brown testified, Magnus said that he believed Brown had been promoted because of cronyism, not merit, and told Brown he reserved the right to demote him.
Magnus kept him at an arm’s length, Brown testified, but embraced Ritter.
At another meeting Captain McBride asked Magnus how he preferred to be addressed, and was told, “Chief Magnus,” Brown testified. But, said Brown, “Captain Ritter was calling him ‘Chris.’ ‘Chris this,’ ‘Chris that’” Asked by his attorney, Jonathan Matthews, how that made him feel, Brown said, “I felt excluded, I felt like I certainly wasn’t part of the clique.”
Brown also testified that he once encountered Magnus and Ritter at City Hall, and overheard Magnus say, “ ‘I love you, Lori.'”
“You can be fond of your workers, but it certainly seemed above that to me,” Brown said. “This was adoration, it was, ‘I love you, Lori.”
“I brought it to his attention, that he never talks to anybody but Lori,” Brown said.
Brown testified that he and Ritter had a difficult relationship. Brown twice replaced Ritter in leadership positions, he said, first as head of the Patrol Division, and then, in 2005, as head of the Criminal Investigations Bureau.
In June 2005, Brown said, he was promoted to Captain by interim Chief Terry Hudson over Ritter’s objections. Ritter argued that any promotions should wait for the new incoming chief.
Ritter put those objections in writing. During Wednesday’s hearing, Brown’s attorney displayed an email from Ritter to Magnus, her response to a survey that Magnus asked staff to fill out before his arrival. In it, Ritter wrote of concerns that “center around the promotion of individuals who have serious negative issues in their past, including criminal convictions.” In 1983, six years after joining the department, Brown pled no contest to charges of illegally dealing imported cars, he said. He said Wednesday that he had not known he needed a license.
In addition, Brown testified, in 2005 he and Ritter attended a meeting with representatives of other agencies to review new software when the computer went dead in the middle of the presentation. The room went silent.
“Captain Ritter turned to me and said, ‘Well, Cleveland, why don’t you tap dance for us?” Brown testified. The comment, he said, was shocking. “I looked around at people in the room and they were mortified,” Brown said.“Tap dance? I got up and left the room.”
“It was hurtful, it was degrading,” he continued.
Ritter later approached him to apologize, and said she had been unaware of the stereotype her words might bring to mind, Brown testified. “I told her, ‘You know, Lori, I really can’t accept your apology, because there has always been a perception that you harbored some racial animus, and you of all people should never make those kinds of statements,’” Brown said.
Brown was later demoted to lieutenant. Ritter has retired from the department.
Earlier during the day’s hearing, Lieutenant Shawn Pickett concluded his testimony, in which he alleged that Magnus sought to exclude black officers from the Investigative Services Division (ISD). Pickett was tapped to head the division, and testified that he was upset that Magnus did not allow him to hand-pick his staff, as had been previous custom. Magnus’ recruitment process prioritized writing and computer skills, Pickett testified, whereas Pickett valued “compassion.”
When defense attorney Arthur Hartinger asked whether it was important for detectives to have good writing skills, Pickett shot back, “That’s what the city has said about minority officers all the time,” adding that the city has claimed “minority officers can’t write” as an excuse for keeping them out of the ISD.
Under questioning from his own attorney, Stephen Jaffe, Pickett added that he had seen reports written by black officers posted in the department hallway.
“Do you know why they were posted?” Jaffe asked.
“To embarrass the officer,” Pickett answered.
The exchange was cut off when Judge Barry P. Goode instructed the jury to disregard the testimony. It was unclear from the testimony whether Pickett was describing incidents during Magnus’ tenure, or earlier.
Brown will face cross-examination on Monday. Magnus and Ritter are expected to testify sometime next week. Attorneys say the trial will run at least through late March.