Brown testifies that Richmond chief promoted alleged racist, inflaming tensions

on February 8, 2012

Lt. Cleveland Brown testified that he never heard the Richmond police chief or deputy chief use racial slurs, but that they made remarks that were offensive to African Americans.

Former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter “told me to tap dance,” Brown said from the witness stand. “That is racially offensive.”

Brown is one of seven high-ranking African American police officials suing Ritter, Police Chief Chris Magnus and the City of Richmond for workplace discrimination. During his third day of testimony, the 34-year Richmond Police Department veteran fielded a range of questions under defense attorney Geoffrey Spellberg’s cross-examination. The exchanges between the plaintiff and defense attorneys were sharp, as they have been the for much of the trial. On at least two occasions Judge Barry P. Goode had to halt the dueling voices of Brown and Spellberg in order for the court reporter to get a clear account.

Brown alleged on Tuesday that Ritter was perceived as a racist inside the department and in the community. “Her past was sullied,” Brown said.

But in earlier testimony Brown said Ritter quickly became a favorite within the new regime after Magnus took over the department in 2006 after a stint atop a department in Fargo, N.D.

Brown testified that Magnus rebuffed his suggestions that he slow Ritter’s rise within the ranks, which could spark backlash inside and outside the department due to her reputation. Instead, Magnus promoted Ritter to Deputy Chief, effectively putting her in command over Brown and at least two other African American captains.

On several occasions Tuesday, Spellberg suggested that Brown himself had made racist remarks directed at Ritter.

“You told the chief that to have [Ritter] over black captains reeked of the master-slave mentality, right? Spellberg said. “Didn’t you feel that was a racist comment, Captain?

“I think that it’s an appropriate comment when attached to Lori Ritter,” Brown said.

Brown and his co-plaintiffs allege that Magnus and Ritter cracked racist jokes, made racially offensive comments, blocked the advancement of black officers and devised promotion criteria aimed at keeping them out of a coveted investigative unit.

The city’s defense team characterizes the plaintiffs as liars allied in a power play aimed at crushing the reform-minded chief, whose progressive community policing plan and insistence on competitive promotion processes represented a threat to their status quo.

The plaintiffs are Capt. Eugene McBride, Sgt. James Jenkins and five lieutenants: Brown, Arnold Threets, Shawn Pickett, Michael Booker and Johan Simon.

Spellberg noted that in November 2005, less than a year before racial turmoil overwhelmed the department, Brown testified in federal court against another African American lieutenant who was suing the city in part because Ritter was promoted over him.

Lt. Tom Phillips brought a federal lawsuit alleging that Ritter’s promotion to captain over him by then-Chief Joseph Samuels Jr., was based on unlawful discrimination, Spellberg said. Brown said his 2005 testimony was related to Phillips, not Ritter.

“You said that that was a righteous appointment, right?” Spellberg said.

“The process was fair. [I said] that Phillips wasn’t qualified,” Brown said.

At another point, Spellberg read aloud excerpts of a glowing performance evaluation of Ritter dated January 2005 by Terry Hudson, Richmond’s police chief at the time. Hudson is African American.

“You are sensitive to the needs and feelings of those you were working with and always display a fair and impartial manner regardless of the situations,” the evaluation read. “I have observed that your demeanor does not change regardless of the racial or socioeconomic background of the individuals you are dealing with.”

Spellberg turned to Brown.

“You think Chief Hudson is wrong?” Spellberg said.

“That’s his opinion of her, that’s not mine,” Brown said.

As the defense team has during cross examination of all the plaintiffs, Spellberg delved into the allegations that Magnus made racially-insensitive comments about Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery.

Brown testified that Magnus asked whether Juneteenth was a “holiday for killing people” during a 2006 deployment strategy meeting with several African American police leaders.

Brown said he did not express umbrage at the comment, but interjected to briefly explain what the holiday is and what it celebrates. Another officer wasn’t so diplomatic.

“Lt. Ricky Clark said ‘There goes a lawsuit,” Brown testified.

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