Clashes on – and off – the witness stand in Magnus race-discrimination suit
on March 7, 2012
Lt. Johan Simon, a decorated member of the Richmond Police Department who some thought of as a potential candidate for chief of police, instead gained a more dubious distinction during the divisive early period of Chief Chris Magnus’ tenure atop the organization.
He was the first officer ever to be put on a “threat assessment,” a city labor safety practice aimed at quashing workplace violence, according to testimony Wednesday in a Martinez courtroom.
Why Simon, then a 26-year veteran of the Richmond Police force, was sent home and a threat assessment process initiated was the focus of intense debate during the morning hearing.
Richmond Human Resources Manager Leslie Knight was on the witness stand for the third straight day in the proceedings against Magnus, former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the city of Richmond. The suit was brought in 2007 by seven high-ranking African American police officials, including Simon, who allege that the Magnus regime was marked with discrimination, racially-tinged jokes and a desire to limit the further advance of African American command staff.
Under examination by plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe, Knight testified she did not think the August 2007 incident caused “irreparable harm” to Simon’s reputation, despite his complaints to the contrary.
Simon, 58, was put on administrative leave on Aug. 14, 2007, when he became agitated and allegedly made threatening statements about Officer Ken Greco. Greco had lodged an earlier complaint against Simon for what Greco believed was sexually inappropriate language directed toward a female officer.
An investigation into the sexual harassment complaint revealed no wrongdoing by Simon. The female officer, Pam Couraugh, testified last week that Simon said nothing to her, but that another officer, in the presence of Greco, complimented her figure.
Knight ordered Simon sent home and put on a threat assessment watch. Knight testified that the threat assessment, which can be used to subject city employees to interviews and conflict counseling, was put into place in the mid-1990s after a city housing employee killed two people after a workplace dispute.
Simon was allowed to return to work the next day. Knight testified that she acted based on reports by Magnus, 51, and Ritter that suggested Simon was unstable.
“It appeared [Simon] was falling apart,” Knight testified.
In court Wednesday the plaintiffs’ attorneys countered with allegations made by Simon, who submitted his own written report to City Manager Bill Lindsay the same day, shortly after Ritter submitted a five-page description of Simon’s allegedly “bizarre” and “threatening” behavior, including an alleged statement that Simon threatened to “go off on” Greco.
“Chief Magnus’ resolute opposition to reasonable and logical requests by a member of his command staff to take action against (Greco) is an act of retaliation,” Simon wrote in his 2007 memo to Lindsay. “(Magnus’) decision to place me on indefinite administrative leave is another act of retaliation against me for my opposition to race based discrimination, harassment and retaliation with the Richmond police department and the city of Richmond.”
In addition to his lengthy tenure, Simon holds a master’s degree and has a reputation for being a leader and an intellectual heavyweight within the department. In 1984, Simon was featured prominently in a “60 Minutes” television magazine story about the police department, which was slapped with what at the time was the largest civil rights award in U.S. history against a municipal government agency.
Jaffe asked Knight to explain how she and Lindsay came to conclusions about the incident.
“So we have two dueling documents,” Simon’s and Ritter’s, “They have factual conflicts,” Jaffe said. “How does Mr. Lindsay know who is telling the truth?”
“Based on discussions with me and a review of the documents,” Knight said.
The plaintiffs in the discrimination suit contend that numerous appeals to Lindsay, Magnus’ boss, went unheeded. Lindsay is expected to testify later in the trial.
In another episode of legal theatrics—which have been common as Jaffe has had repeated noisy clashes with defense attorney Geoffrey Spellberg—Spellberg and co-counsel Arthur Hartinger filed a motion with the court asking that Jaffe be sanctioned for allegedly abusive and racist conduct inside the courtroom toward Joaquin Elizondo, a defense team assistant who is Latino.
Defense attorneys asked for Judge Barry Goode to sanction Jaffe for allegedly hectoring Elizondo with derisive names, including “guard dog,” “asshole,” and “Chihuahua.” Elizondo made the allegations in a sworn statement.
On March 6, “Mr. Jaffe turned to look at me and said, “there you go, Joaquin, you get to leave now – the guard Chihuahua!” Mr. Jaffe laughed as he passed into the hallway. (Jaffe’s co-counsel) Collier, who was present, also laughed,” Elizondo alleged, according to the court record.
Jaffe acknowledged making some off-color remarks about Elizondo, but said it was “outrageous,” to attach a racial context.
Jaffe further complained that Elizondo lurks around him and his colleagues and clients during recesses.
Goode did not impose sanctions, but told Jaffe not to communicate with the defense team’s staff in the courtroom.
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